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Author of '^ The Aljihabet of Ecwiomic Science f^ <fcc. 

Published by ELKIN MATHEWS 

Dante: Six Sermons 
I I (Fost 8vo., 158 pp., Price 6s,) 
;" V ' Eegan Paul, 1879 

Seeond'Ed' (Crown 8vo., 122 pp., Price 2s.) 
, .'\ ^ / Elkin Mathews, 1890 
Third Ed. (Crown 8vo., Price 2s. net) 
Elkin Mathexvs and John Lane, 1892 

Fourth Ed. (Cro%on 8vo., Price 2s. net) 

Elkin Mathews, March, 1895 

(Unaltered reprint) 

Fifth Ed. (Crown 8vo., Price 2s. net) 

Elkin Mathews 

(Unaltered reprint) 

Sixth Ed. (Crown 8vo., Priet 2s. net 

Elkin Mathews, March, 1905 

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(The rights oj translation and reproduction are reserved.) 



I. Dante : as a Citizen of Flouence . . o » • • 1 

11. Dantk: in Exile ,.,,.' 

ni. Hell 

IV. Purgatory . • * 

V. Heaven « . . . • 

VI. Appendix 

Index op PASSAaas ^^"^ 




Thb demand for the " Six Sermons " still continues ; and 
I therefore reissue them essentially unchanged. A few 
qualifications and warnings have been introduced in the 
notes, and a very few corrections of detail into the text. 

While increasingly conscious of their defects, both in 
form and substance, I still feel, after thirteen years of 
continued study, that they present, essentially, what I 
should wish to emphasise in a first book on Dante. 

P ^. W. 
May, 1892. 


Thb five Sermons which form the body of this little book 
on Dante were delivered in the ordinary course of my 
ministry at Little Portland Street Chapel, in the autumn 
of 1878, and subsequently at the Free Christian Church, 
Croydon, in a slightly altered form. 

They are now printed, at the request of many of my 
hearers, almost exactly as delivered at Croydon. 

The substance of a sixth Sermon has been thrown into 
an Appendix. 

The translations I have given are sometimes paraphrastic, 
and virtually contain glosses or interpretations which make 
it necessary to warn the reader against regarding them as in 
every case Dante's ipsissima verba. For the most part the 
renderings are substantially my own; but I have freely 
availed myself of numerous translations, without special 
acknowledgment, whenever they supplied me with suitable 

I have only to add the acknowledgment of my obligations 
to Fraticelli's edition of Dante's works (whose numbering 
of the minor poems and the letters I have adopted for 
reference), to the same writer's *Life of Dante,' and to 
Mr. Symonds's * Introduction to the Study of Dante.' 

P. H. W. 

June, 1879. 


Thb increasing frequency of demands for this volume, 
which has long been out of print, has induced mo to 
reissue it. 

Slight as it is, it has been found to have a certain value 
as a first book on Dante, which may give those who go 
no further some conception of what the Comedy means, 
and may help others to approach its study from the point 
of view of life^ rather than that of literature and scholarship 
in the narrower sense. 

In this edition a few corrections of detail have been 

introduced, and an index of passages added, 

P. H. W. 
June, 1890. 




(There are prolDably few competent judges who would 
hesitate to give Dante a place of honour in the triad of 
the world's greatest poets; and amongst these three 
Dante occupies a position wholly his own, peerless and 
unapproached in history. 

For Homer and Shakespeare reflect the ages in which 
they lived, in all their fulness and variety of life and 
motive, largely sinking their own individuality in the 
intensity and breadth of their sympathies. They are great 
teachers doubtless, and fail not to lash what they regard as 
the growing vices or follies of the day, and to impress upon 
their hearers the solemn lessons of those inevitable facts of 
life which they epitomise and vivify. But their teaching 
is chiefly incidental or indirect, it is largely unconscious and 
is often almost as difficult to unravel from their works as it 
is from the life and nature they so faithfully reflect. 

With Dante it is far otherwise. Aglow with a prophet's 
passionate conviction, an apostle's undying zeal, he is guided 
by a philosopher's breadth and clearness of principle, a poet's 
unfailing sense of beauty and command of emotions, to a 
social reformer's definite and pratical aims and a mystic's 
peace of religious communion. And, though his works 
abound in dramatic touches of startling power and variety, 



-and delineatioTis of character unsurpassed in delicacy, yet 
';WJ).}i;aU*t2>e depth and scope of his -ympathies he never for 
a moment losses himself or forgets his purpose. 

As a philosopher and statesman, he had analysed with 
keen precision the social institutions, the political forces, and 
the historical antecedents by which he found his time and 
country dominated ; as a moralist, a theologian, and a man, 
he had grasped with a firmness that nothing could relax the 
essential conditions of human blessedness here and hereafter, 
and with an intensity and fixity of definite self-conscious 
purpose almost without parallel, he threw the passionate 
energy of his nature into the task of preaching the eternal 
truth to his countrymen, and through them to the world, and 
thwarting and crushing the powers and institutions which he 
regarded as hostile to the well-being of mankind. He strove 
to teach his brothers that their true bliss lay in the exercise 
of virtue here, and the blessed vision of (Jod hereafter. And 
as a step towards this, and an essential part of its realisation, 
he strove to make Italy one in heart and tongue, to raise her 
out of the sea of petty jealousies and intrigues in which she 
was plunged; in a word, to erect her into a free, united 
country, with a noble mother tongue. These two purposes 
were one; and, supported and supplemented by a never- 
dying zeal for truth, a never-failing sense of beauty, they 
inspired the life and works of Dante Alighieri. 

It is often held and taught, that a strong and definite 
didactic purpose must inevitably be fatal to the highest 
forms of art, must clip the wings of poetic imagination, 


distort the symmetry of poetic sympatny, and substitute 
hard and angular contrasts for the melting grace of those 
curved lines of beauty which pass one into the other. Had 
Dante never lived, I know not where we should turn for the 
decisive refutation of this thought ; but in Dante it is the 
very combination said to be impossible that inspires and 
enthrals us. A perfect artist, guided in the exercise of his 
art by an unflagging intensity of moral purpose ; a prophet, 
submitting his inspirations to the keenest philosophical 
analysis, pouring them into the most finished artistic moulds, 
yet bringing them into ever fresher and fuller contact with 
their living source; a moralist and philosopher whose 
thoughts are fed by a prophet's directness of vision and a 
poet's tender grace of love, a poet's might and subtlety of 
imagination — Philosopher, Prophet, Poet, supreme as each, 
unique as a combination of them all — such was Dante 
Alighieri ! And his voice will never be drowned or 
forgotten as long as man is dragged downward by passion, 
and struggles upward towards God, as long as he that sows 
to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption, and he that 
sows to the spirit reaps of the spirit life everlasting, as long 
as the heart of man can glow responsive to a holy indig- 
nation with wrong, or can feel the sweetness of the harmonies 
of peace. 

It is little that I can hope to do, and yet I would fain 
do something, towards opening to one here and there some 
glimpse into that mighty temple, instinct with the very 
presence of the Eternal, raised by the master hand, nay 


rather wrought out of the mighty heart of Dante ; but 
before we can even attempt to identify a few fragments of 
the "Divine Comedy/' as landmarks to guide us, in our turn, 
through Hell and Purgatory up to Heaven, it is needful for 
us to have some conception who Dante Alighieri was, and 
what were his fortunes in this mortal life. 

And here I must once for all utter a warning, and 
thereby discharge myself of a special duty. The Old 
Testament itself has not been more ruthlessly allegorised 
than have Dante's works and even his very life. The lack 
of trustworthy materials, in any great abundance, for an 
account of the poet's outward lot, the difficulty of fixing 
with certainty when he is himself relating actual events 
and when his apparent narratives are merely allegorical, the 
obscurity, incompleteness, and even apparent inconsistency 
of some of the data he supplies, the uncertainty as to the 
exact time at which his different works were composed and 
the precise relation in which they stand to each other, and 
the doubts which have been thrown upon the authenticity 
of some of the minor documents upon which the poet's 
biographers generally rely, have all combined to involve 
almost every step of his life in deep obscurity. Here, then, 
is a field upon which laborious research, ingenious conjec- 
ture, and wild speculation can find unending employment, 
and consequently every branch of the study has quite a 
literature of its own. 

Now into this mass of controversial and speculative 
writings on Dante, I do not make the smallest pretensions 


to have penetrated a single step. I am far from wishing to 
disparage such studies, or to put forward in my own defence 
that stale and foolish plea, the refuge of pretentious 
ignorance in every region of inquiry, that a mind coming 
fresh to the study has the advantage over those that are 
already well versed in it ; but surely the students who are 
making the elucidation of Dante their life work would not 
ask or wish, that until their endless task is completed all 
those whose souls have been touched by the direct utterance 
of the great poet, should hold their peace until qualified 
to speak by half a life of study. 

With no further apology, then, for seeming to venture 
too rashly on the task, we may go on to a brief sketch of 
Dante's life and principles. The main lines which I shall 
follow are in most cases traced distinctly enough by Dante's 
own hand, and to the best of my belief, they represent a 
fair average of the present or recent conclusions of scholars ; 
but, on the other hand, there have always been some who 
would unhesitatingly treat as allegory much of what I shall 
present to you as fact ; who for instance would treat all 
Dante's love for Beatrice, and indeed Beatrice's very 
existence, as purely allegorical; and, again, where the 
allegory is admitted on all hands, there is a ceaseless 
shifting and endless variety in the special interpretations 
adopted and rejected by the experts. 

Dante, or properly Durante Alighieri was born in 
Florence of an ancient and, perhaps, noble family, in the 


year 1265. We may note that his life falls in a period 
which we used to be taught to regard as an age of intellectual 
stagnation and social barbarism, in which Christianity had 
degenerated into a jumbled chaos of puerile and immoral 
superstitions. We may note also that in the early years of 
his life the poet was a contemporary of some of the noblest 
representatives of the pseudo-Catholic civilisation, that is to 
say of mediaeval philosophy, theology, and chivalry, while 
his manhood was joined in loving friendship with the first 
supremely great mediaeval artist, and before he died one 
of the great precursors and heralds of the revival of learning 
was growing up to manhood, and another had already left his 
cradle. To speak of Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas, and St. 
Louis, as living when Dante was born, of Giotto as his 
companion and friend, of Petrarch and Boccaccio as already 
living when he died, is to indicate more clearly than could 
be done by any more elaborate statement, the position he 
occupies at the very turning point of the Middle Ages, when 
the forces of modern life had begun to rise, but the 
supremacy of mediaeval faith and discipline was as yet 
unbroken. Accordingly Dante, in whom the truest spirit of 
the age is, as it were, "made flesh," may be variously 
regarded as the great morning star of modern enlightenment, 
freedom, and culture, or as the very type of mediaeval 
discipline, faith, and chivalry. To me, I confess, this latter 
aspect of Dante's life is altogether predominant. To me he 
is the very incarnation of Catholicism, not in its shame, but 
in its glory. Yet the future is always contained in the 


present when rightly understood, and just because Dante was 
the perfect representative of his own age, he became the 
herald and the prophecy of the ages to come, not, as we 
often vainly imagine them, rebelling against and escaping 
from the overshadowing solemnity of the ages past, but 
growing out of them as their natural and necessary result. 
In the year 1265, then, Dante, was born in Florence, 
then one of the most powerful and flourishing, but also, 
alas ! one of the most factious and turbulent of the cities of 
Europe. He was not nine years old when he first met that 
Beatrice Portinari who became thenceforth the loadstar oi' 
his life. As to this lady we have little to say. The details 
which Dante's early biographers give us add but little to our 
knowledge of her, and so far as they are not drawn from the 
poet's own words, are merely such graceful commonplaces of 
laudatory description as any imagination of ordinary capacity 
would spontaneously supply for itself. When we have said 
that Beatrice was a beautiful, sweet, and virtuous girl, we 
have said all that we know, or all that we need care to 
know, of the daughter of Folco Portinari, who lived, was 
married, and died in Florence at the end of the thirteenth 
century. All that she is to us more than other Florentine 
maidens, she is to us through that poet who, as he wept her 
untimely death, hoped with no vain hope " to write of her, 
what ne'er was writ of woman." ^ 

It puts no great strain on our powers of credence, to 
I Vita N'uova xliii, 



accept Dante's own statement of the rush of almost 
Btupifying emotions which overwhelmed his childish heart 
when (to follow Boccaccio's account) he went with his father 
to Portinari's house, and was sent to play with other children, 
amongst them the little Beatrice, a child of eight years old. 
The " New Life '' waked within him from that moment and 
its strength and purity made him strong and pure.* 

Nine more years have passed. Dante is now eighteen. 
He has made rapid progress in all the intellectual and 
personal accomplishments which are held to adorn the 
position of a Florentine gentleman. His teachers have in 
some cases already discerned the greatness of his powers, and 
he has become aware, probably by essays which never saw 
the light, that he has not only a poet's passions and 
aspirations, but a poet's power of moulding language into 
oneness with his thought. He and Beatrice know each 
other by sight, as neighbours or fellow-citizens, but Dante 
has never heard her voice address a word to him. Yet she 
is still the centre of all his thoughts. She has never ceased 
to be to him the perfect ideal of growing womanhood, and 
to his devout and fervid imagination, just because she is the 
very flower of womanly courtesy, grace, and virtue, she is an 
angel upon earth. Not in the hackneyed phrase of compli- 
mentary commonplace, not in the exaggerated cant of 
would-be poetical metaphor, but in the deep verity of his 
inmost life, Dante Alighieri believes that Beatrice Portinari, 
* Vita Nuova i, ii. 



the maiden whose purity keeps him pure, whose grace and 
beauty are as guardian angels watching over his life, has 
more of heaven than of earth about her, and claims kindred 
with God's more perfect family. 

Beatrice is now seventeen, she is walking with two 
companions in a public place, she meets Dante, and allows 
herself to utter a few words of graceful greeting. It is the 
first time she has spoken to him, and Dante's soul is thrilled 
and fired to its very depths. Not many hours afterwards, 
the poet began the first of his sonnets that we still possess, 
perhaps the first he ever wrote. ^ 

Let us pass over eight or nine years more. Dante, now 
about twenty-six, is the very flower of chivalry and poetry 
The foremost men in his own and other cities — artists, 
musicians, poets, scholars, and statesmen — are his friends. 
Somewhat hard of access and reserved, but the most 
fascinating of companions and the faithfulest of friends to 
those who have found a real place in his heart, Dante takes 
a rank of acknowledged eminence amongst the poets of his 
day. His verses, chiefly in praise of Beatrice, are written in 
a strain of tender sentiment, that gives little sign of what is 
ultimately to come out of him, but there is a nervous and 
concentrated power of diction, a purity and elevation of 
conception in them, which may not have been obvious to his 
companions as separating him from them, but which to eyes 
instructed by the result is full of deepest meaning. 
1 Vita Nuovay iii. ; InfemOy xv. 55, sqq. &c. 


And what of Beatrice? She is dead. It was never 
given to Dante to call her his. We know not so much as 
whether he even aspired to more than that gracious 
salutation in which, to use his own expression, he seemed 
to touch " the very limits of beatitude." ^ 

Be this as it may, it is certain that Beatrice (if we may 
accept Boccaccio's authority and identify her with Beatrice 
Portinari) married a powerful citizen of Florence several 
years before her death. But she was still the guardian angel 
of the poet's life, she was still the very type of womanhood 
to him ; and there was not a word or thought of his towards 
her but was full of utter courtesy and purity. And now, in 
the flower of her loveliness she is cut down by death, and to 
Dante life has become a wilderness. ^ 

Yet eight or nine years more. Dante is now in what his 
philosophical system regards as the very prime of life.^ He 
is thirty-five. The date is 1300. Since we left him weeping 
for the death of Beatrice, the unity of his life has been 
shattered and he has lost his way, but only for a time. Now 
his powers and purposes are richer, stronger, more concen- 
trated than ever. 

In his first passion of grief for Beatrice's death he had 
been profoundly touched by the pity of a gentle-eyed damsel 
whom a far from groundless conjecture identifies with 
Gemma Donati, the lady whom he married not long after- 
wards. With this Gemma he lived till his banishment, and 
1 Yito. Nuova, iii. ^ Vita Nuova, iv.-xxx. ^GonvitOj iv. 23. 



they had a numerous family. The internal evidence of 
Dante's works, and the few circumstances really known to 
us, give little support to the tradition that their marriage 
was an unhappy one. 

Dante's friends, says Boccaccio, had hoped that domestic 
peace might console him for his irreparable loss, but he 
himself had rather sought for consolation in the study of 
philosophy and theology ; and it befel him, he tells us, as 
one who in seeking silver strikes on gold — not, haply, with- 
out guidance from on high ; — for he began to see many 
things as in a dream, and dreamed that Dame Philosophy 
must needs be supreme ! ^ 

But neither domestic nor literary cares and duties 
absorbed his energies. In late years he had begun to take 
an active part in the politics of his city, and was now fast 
rising to his true position as one of the foremost men of 
Florence and of Italy. 

Thus we see new interests and new powers rising in his 
life, but for a time the unity of that life was gone. While 
Beatrice lived, Dante's whole being was centred in her, and 
she was to him the visible token of God's presence upon 
earth, the living proof of the reality and the beauty of things 
Divine, born to fill the world with faith and gentleness. 
But when she was gone, when other passions and pursuits 
disputed with her memory the foremost place in Dante's 
heart, it was as though he had lost the secret and the 
meaning of life, as though he had lost the guidance of Heaven, 
1 Co7ivitOf ii. 13. 


and was whirled helplessly in the vortex of moral, social, and 
political disorder which swept over his country. For Italian 
politics at this period form a veritable chaos of shifting 
combinations and entanglements, of plots and counterplots, 
of intrigue and treachery and vacillation, though lightened 
ever and again by gleams of noblest patriotism and devotion. 

Yet Dante's soul was far too strong to be permanently 
overwhelmed. Gradually his philosophical reflections began 
to take definite shape. He felt the wants of his own life and 
of his country's life. He pierced down to the fundamental 
conditions of political and social welfare ; and when human 
philosophy had begun to restore unity and concentration to 
his powers, then the sweet image of the pure maiden who 
had first waked his soul to love returned glorified and trans- 
figured to guide him into the very presence of God. She 
was the symbol of Divine philosophy. She, and she only 
could restore his shattered life to unity and strength, and the 
love she never gave him as a woman, she could give him as 
the protecting guardian of his life, as the vehicle of God's 
highest revelation.^ 

With his life thus strengthened, and enriched, with a firm 
heart and a steady purpose, Dante Alighieri stood in the year 
1300 at the helm of the State of Florence. And here accord- 
ingly it becomes necessary for us to dwell for a moment on 
some of the chief political forces with which he had to deal. 

The two great factions of the Guelfs and Ghibellines were 
tearing the very heart of Italy ; and without going into any 

J Yita Nuova, xxi.-xliii. ; Convito, ii. ; Purgatorio, xxx., xxxi. 


detail, we must try to point out the central ideas of each 
party. The Ghibellines, then, appear to have represented 
an aristocratic principle of order, constantly in danger of 
becoming oppressive, while the Guelfs represented a de- 
mocratic principle of progress, ever verging upon chaotic 
and unbridled licence. The Ghibellines longed for a national 
unity, resting on centralisation ; the Guelfs aimed at a local 
independence which tended to national disintegration. The 
Ghibellines, regarding the German Empire as the heir and 
representative of the Empire of Rome, and as the symbol of 
Italian unity, espoused the Emperor's cause against the Pope, 
declared the temporal power independent of the spiritual, 
and limited the sphere of the priests entirely to the latter. 
The Guelfs found in the political action of the Pope a 
counterpoise to the influence of the Emperor; the petty 
and intriguing spirit of the politics of the Vatican made ita 
ruler the natural ally of the disintegrating Guelfs rather 
than the centralising Ghibellines, and accordingly the Guelfs 
ardently espoused the cause of the Pope's temporal power, 
and often sought in the royal house of France a further 
support ngainst Germany, 

These broad lines, however, were constantly blurred and 
crossed by personal intrigue or ambition, by family jealousies, 
feuds, and rivalries, by unnatural alliances or by corruption 
and treachery. 

Now Dante was by family tradition a Guelf. Florence 
too was nominally the headquarters of Guelfism, and Dante 
had fought bravely in her battles against the Ghibellines, 


But the more lie reflected upon the sources ot the evils by 
vrhich Italy was torn, the more profoundly he came to dis- 
trust the unprincipled meddling of the greedy princes of the 
bouse of France in Italian politics, and the more jealously did 
be watch the temporal power of the Pope. Perhaps the 
political opinions he afterwards held were not as yet fully 
consolidated, but his votes and proposals — which we read 
with a strange interest in the city archives of Florence 
nearly six hundred years after the ink has dried — show that 
in 1300 he was at any rate on the highway to the con- 
clusions he ultimately reached. And we may therefore take 
this occasion of stating what they were. 

It appeared to Dante that Italy was sunk in moral, social, 
and political chaos, for want of a firm hand to repress the tur- 
bulent factions that rent her bosom ; and that no hand except 
an Emperor's could be firm enough. The empire of Rome was 
to him the most imposing and glorious spectacle offered by 
human history. God had guided Rome by miraoles and signs 
to the dominion of the world that the world might be at peace. 

And parallel with this temporal Empire founded by Julius 
Csesar, was the spiritual Empire of the Church, founded by 
Jesus Christ. Both alike were established by God for the 
guidance of mankind : to rebel against either was to rebel 
against God. Brutus and Cassius, who slew Julius Caesar, 
the embodiment of the Empire, are placed by Dante in the 
same depth of Hell as Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus 
Christ, the founder of the Church.^ These three had done 
* InfemOf xxxiv. 55-67. 


what in them lay to reduce the world to civil and religious 
chaos, for they had compassed the death of the ideal represen- 
tatives of civil and religious order. But both powers alike laid 
a mighty trust upon the human agents who administered them ; 
and as the Empire and the Church were the sublimest and the 
holiest of ideal institutions, so a tyrannical Emperor and a 
corrupt or recreant Pope were amongst the foulest of sinners, 
to be rebuked and resisted with every power of body and soul. 

Dante could no more conceive of the spiritual life without 
the authoritative guidance of the all-present, all-pervading 
Church, than he could conceive of a well-ordered polity 
without the all-penetrating force of law. But it appeared 
to him as monstrous for the Pope to seek political influence 
and to use his spiritual powers for political ends as he 
would have judged it for the Emperor to exercise spiritual 
tyranny over the faith of Christians.^ 

There can have been little in the political life of Florence 
at this time to attract one who held such views. But Dante 
of all men hated and despised weak shrinking from responsi- 
bility. If there is one feature in his stern character more 
awful than any other, it is his unutterable, withering contempt 
for those who lived without praise or blame, those wretches 
who never were alive. He saw them afterwards in the outer 
circle of Hell, mingled with that caitiff herd of angels who 
were not for God, and yet were not for the rebels, but 
were only for themselves. 

^See the De Monarchia. Compare Purgatorio, xvi. 103-112; 
ParadisOf xviii. 124-136. 


Heaven drove them forth, Heaven's beauty not to stain, 
Nor would the deep Hell deign to have them there 
For any glory tha*} the damned might gain 1 

No fame of them survives upon the earth, Pity and 
Justice hold them in disdain, their cries of passion and of 
woe are ever whirled through the starless air, and their for- 
gotten lot appears to them so base that they envy the very 
torments of the damned. "Let us not speak of them," 
says Virgil to Dante, " but gaze and pass them by." ^ 

So Dante shrank not from his task when called to public 
ofifice, but laid his strong hand upon the helm of Florence. 
During a part of this year 1300, he filled the supreme 
magistracy, and at that very time the old disputes of Guelf 
and Ghibelline broke out in the city afresh under a thin 
disguise. We have seen that Dante's sympathies were now 
almost completely Ghibelline, but as the first Prior of Florence 
his duty was firmly to suppress all factious attempts to disturb 
the city's peace and introduce intestine discord. It was not 
by party broils that Italy would be restored to peace and 
harmony. He behaved with a more than Roman fortitude, 
for it is easier for a father to chastise a rebellious son than 
for a true friend to override the claims of friendship. Dante's 
dearest friend, Guido Cavalcanti, bound to him by every tie 
of sympathy and fellowship which could unite two men in 
common purposes and common hopes, was one of the leaders 
of the party with which Dante himself sympathised ; and 
yet, for the good of his country and in obedience to his 
1 Inferno, iii. 22-51. 


magisterial duty, he tore this friend from his side though 
not from his heart, and pronounced on him the sentence of 
banishment, the weight of which he must even then have 
known so well. It speaks to the eternal honour of Guido, as 
well as Dante, that this deed appears not to have thrown so 
much as a shadow upon the friendship of the two men. ^ 

Had Dante's successors in office dealt with firmness and 
integrity equal to his own, all might have been well ; but a 
vacillating and equivocal policy soon opened the door to 
suspicions and recriminations ; Florence ceased to steer her 
own course and permitted foreign interference with her affairs; 
while the Pope, with intentions that might have been good, 
but with a policy which proved utterly disastrous, furthered 
the intervention of the French Prince, Charles of Valoia. It 
was a critical moment. An embassy to the Papal Court was 
essential, and a firm hand must meanwhile hold the reins at 
Florence. "If I go, who shall stay 1 if I stay, who shall go?" 
Dante is reported to have said, and though the saying is 
probably apocryphal, yet it points out happily enough the 
true position of aff'airs. Dante was now no longer the chief 
magistrate of his city, but he was in fact, though not in 
name, the one man of Florence, the one man of Italy. ^ 

Finally he resolved to go to Rome. But the blindness or 
corruption of the Papal Court was invincible; and while 

1 Compare InfemOy x. 52-72, 109-111. 

^It is questioned by many recent scholars whether the part 
played by Dante in the political history of his times was as important 
as has usually been supposed, and as is here represented. — 1890. 


Dante was stili toiling at his hopeless task, Charles of Valois 
entered Florence, couching the lance wherewith Judas 
tilted, ^ soon to realise the worst suspicions of those who had 
opposed his intervention. Nominally arestorer of tranquillity, 
he stirred up all the worst and most lawless passions of the 
Florentines ; and while Dante was serving his country at 
Rome, the unjust and cruel sentence of banishment was 
launched against him, his property was confiscated and seized; 
a few months afterwards he was sentenced to be burned to 
death should he ever fall into the power of the Florentines, 
and, not content with all this, his enemies heaped upon his 
name the foulest calumnies of embezzlement and malver- 
sation — calumnies which I suppose no creature from that 
hour to this has ever for one moment believed, but which 
could not fail to make the envenomed wound strike deeper 
into Dante's heart. 

So now he must leave " all things most dear — this the 
first arrow shot from exile's bow," in poverty and dependence 
his proud spirit must learn " how salt a taste cleaves to a 
patron's bread, how hard a path mounts and descends a 
patron's stair;" and, above all, his unsullied purity and 
patriotism must find itself forced into constant association 
or even alliance with selfish and personal ambition, or with 
tyranny, meanness, and dup] icity . ^ How that great soul bore 
itself amid all these miseries, what it learnt from them, where 
it sought and found a refuge from them, we shall see when we 
take up agahi the broken thread which we must drop to-day 
I Purgatorio, xx. 73-74. ^ParadisOf xvii. 55-63, 



A RAPID sketch of tho most decisive events and the leading 
motives of the life of Dante Alighieri has brought us to the 
eventful period of his Priorate in 1300 and his banishment 
in 1302. His unsucOessful efforts to carry out a firm and 
statesmanlike policy in Florence, with the wreck of his own 
fortunes consequent upon their failure, may be regarded as 
the occasion if not the cause of his conceiving his greatest 
work, the "Divine Comedy." 

Nineteen years elapsed between Dante's exile and his 
death. They were years of varied hope, aspiration and 
endeavour, but, as they advanced, the main strength of the 
poet's life was concentrated more and more upon the work 
already conceived in the years of mourning for Beatrice. 
'• Forging on the anvil of incessant toil " the several parts of 
his great work, and "welding them into imperishable 
symmetry,"^ the might of his intellect and the passion of his 
heart grappled for nineteen years with the task of giving 
worthy utterance to his vast idea. Line by line, canto by 
canto, the victory was won. Dante had shown that his 
mother tongue could rise to loftier themes than Greek or 
Roman had ever touched, and had wrought out the fitting 
garb of a poem that stands alone in the literature of the 
world in the scope and sublimity of its conception. 
1 Symonds. 


Barely to realise what it was that Dante artempted, wakes 
feelings in our hearts akin to awe. When we think of that 
work and of the man who, knowing what it was, deliberately 
set himself to do it, an appalling sense of the presence oi 
overwhelming grandeur falls upon us, as when a great wall 
of rocky precipice rises sheer at our side, a thousand and 
yet a thousand feet towards heaven. Our heads swim as we 
gaze up to the sky-line of such a precipice, the ground seems 
to drop from beneath our feet, all our past and present be- 
comes a dream, and our very hold of life seems to slip away 
from us. But the next moment a great exultation comes 
rushing upon our hearts ; with quickened pulses and draw- 
ing deeper breath we rise to the sublimity of the scene 
around us, and our whole being is expanded and exalted by 
it. After holding converse with such grandeur our lives 
can never be so small again. And so it is when the mean- 
ing of Dante's Comedy breaks upon us. When we follow 
the poet step by step as he beats or pours his thoughts into 
language, when we note the firmness of his pace, the mastery 
with which he handles and commands his infinite theme, 
the unflinching directness, the god-like self-reliance, with 
which he lays bare the hearts of his fellow-men and makes 
himself the mouth-piece of the Eternal, when we gaze upon 
his finished work and the despair of Hell, the yearning of 
Purgatory, the peace of Heaven, sweep over our hearts, we 
are ready to whisper in awe-struck exultation ; 

What immortal hand or eye 
Dared form thy fearful symmetry ? 


The allegory with which the "Divine Comedy" opens^ 
shadows forth the meaning and the purpose of the whole 
poem. In interpreting it we may at first give prominence 
to its political signification, not because its main intention ia 
certainly or probably political, but because we shall thus be 
enabled to pass in due order from the outer to the innei 
circle of the poet's beliefs and purposes. ^ 

In the year 1300, then, Dante Alighieri found that he 
had wandered, he knew not how, from the true path of life, 
and was plunged into the deadly forest of political, social, and 
moral disorder which darkened with terrific shade the fair 
soil of Italy. Deep horror settled upon the recesses of his 
heart during the awful night, but at last he saw the fair light 
of the morning sun brightening the shoulders of a hill that 
stretched above : this was the peaceful land of moral and 
political order, which seemed to offer an escape from the 
bitterness of that ghastly forest. Gathering heart at this 
sweet sight, Dante set himself manfully to work, with the 
nether foot ever planted firmly on the soil, to scale that 
glorious height But full soon his toilsome path would be 
disputed with him. The dire powers of Guelfism would 
not allow the restoration of peace and order to Italy. His 
first foe was the incurable factiousness and lightness of his 
own fair Florence. Like a lithe and speckled panther it 
glided before him to oppose his upward progress, and forced 

1 1 should not now venture to give even this secondary promin. 
ence to the political, as distinct from tlie moral, significance of the 
*' three beasts. "—1892. 



him once and again to turn back upon his steps towards 
that dread forest he had left. But though forced back, 
Dante could not lose hope. Might he not tame this wild 
but beauteous beast 1 Yes ; he might have coped with the 
fickle, lustful, factious, envious but lovely Florence, had not 
haughty France rushed on him like a lion, at whose voice the 
air must tremble, had not lean and hungry Rome, laden with 
insatiable greed, skulked wolf-like m his path. It was the 
wolf above all that forced him back into the sunless depths of 
that forest of dismay, and dashed to the ground his hopes of 
gaining the fair height. When could he, when could his 
Italy, rise from this chaos and be at peace 1 Not till some 
great political Messiah should draw his sword. With no base 
love of pelf or thirst for land, but fed with wisdom^ love and 
virtue, he should exalt low-lying Italy and drive away her 
foes. Like a noble hound, he should chase the insatiable 
wolf of Roman greed from city to city back to the Hell from 
which it came.^ 

Dante's hope in this political Messiah rose and fell, but 
never died in his heart. Now with the gospel of Messianic 
peace, now with the denunciation of Messianic judgment on 
his lips, he poured out his lofty enthusiasm in those apostolic 
and prophetic letters, some few of which survive amidst the 
wrecks of time as records of his changing moods and his 
unchanging purposes. 

Now one and now another of the GhibelUne leaders may 
have seemed to Dante from time to time to be the hero, the 
1 See /yj/isrwo, i. 1-111. 


Messiah, for whom he waited. But again and yet again his 
hopes were crushed and blighted, and the panther, the lion 
and the wolf, still cut off the approach to that fair land. 

More than once the poet's hopes may have hung upon the 
fortunes of the mighty warrior Uguccione, whose prodigies of 
valour rivalled the fabled deeds of the knights of story. To 
this man Dante was bound by ties of closest friendship. To 
him he is said to have dedicated the Inferno, the first cantica 
of his Comedy, and it has even been maintained that he 
was that hero "'twixt the two Feltros born" ^ to whom Dante 
once looked to slay the wolf of Rome. 

Far higher probably, and certainly far better grounded, 
were the poet's earlier hopes when Henry VII. of Germany 
descended into Italy to bring order into her troubled states. 
To Dante, as we have seen, the Emperor was Emperor of 
Rome and not of Germany. He was Caesar's successor, the 
natural representative of Italian unity, the Divinely-appointed 
guardian of civil order. With what passionate yearning 
Dante looked across the Alps for a deliverer, how large a 
part of the woes of Italy he laid at the feet of Imperial 
neglect, may be gathered from many passages in his several 
w^orks; but nowhere do these thoughts find stronger utter- 
ance than in the sixth canto of the Purgatory, The poet 
sees the shades of Virgil and the troubadour Sordello join 
in a loving embrace at the bare mention of the name of 
Mantua, where both of them were born. ** Italy ! " 
he cries, "thou slave ! thou hostelry of woe ! ship without 
J InftmOi i. 105. — More correctly referred to Can Grande of Verona. 


helmsman, in the tempest rude ! No queen of provinces, 
but house of shame ! See how that gentle soul, e'en at 
the sweet sound of his country's name, was prompt to greet 
his fellow-citizen. Then see thy living sons, how one with 
other ever is at war, and whom the self-same wall and 
moat begird, gnaw at each other's lives. Search, wretched 
one, along thy sea-bound coasts, then inward turn to thine 
own breast, and see if any part of thee rejoice in peace. Of 
what avail Justinian's curb of law, with none to stride the 
saddle of command, except to shame thee more ? Alas ! ye 
priests, who should be at your prayers, leaving to Caesar the 
high seat of rule, did ye read well the word of God to you, 
see ye not how the steed grows wild and fell by long 
exemption from the chastening spur, since that ye placed 
your hands upon the rein ? German Albert ! who aban- 
donest, wild and untamed, the steed thou should'st bestride, 
may the just sentence from the stars above fall on thy race 
in dire and open guise, that he who follows thee may see and 
fear. For, drawn by lust of conquest otherwhere, thou and 
thy sire, the garden of the empire have ye left a prey to 
desolation. Come, thou insensate one, and see the Montagues 
and Capulets, Monaldi, Philippeschi, for all whom the past 
has sadness or the future fear. Come, come, thou cruel one, 
and see oppression trampling on thy faithful ones, and heal 
their ills. . . , , Come thou and see thy Rome, who 
weeps for thee, a lonely widow crying day and night, * My 
Csesar, wherefore hast thou left me thus % ' Come, see how 
love here governs every heart ! Or, if our son-ows move thee 


not at ail, blush for thine own fair fame. — Nay, let me say 
it : Thou God Most High, Thou Who wast crucified for us 
on earth, are Thy just eyes turned otherwhither now 1 Or 
ill the depths of counsel dost Thou work for some good end, 
clean cut off from our ken? For all Italia's lands are 
full of tyrants, and every hind — so he be factious — grows 

Such was the cry for deliverance which went up from 
Dante's heart to the Emperor. Picture his hopes when 
Henry VII. came with the blessing of the Pope, who had had 
more than his fill of French influence at last, to bring peace 
and order into Italy \ picture the exultation with which he 
learnt alike from Henry's deeds and words that he was just, 
impartial, generous, and came not as a tyrant, not as a party 
leader, but as a firm and upright ruler to restore prosperity 
and peace; picture his indignation when the incurable 
factiousness and jealousies of the Italian cities, and of 
Florence most of all, thwarted the Emperor at every step ; 
picture the bitterness of his grief when, after struggling nigh 
three years in vain, Henry fell sick and died at Buonconvento. 
In Paradise the poet saw the place assigned " to Henry's 
lofty soul — his who should come to make the crooked straight, 
ere Italy was ready for his hand ; " but the dream of his 
throne on earth was broken for ever.^ 

Henry died in 1313. This blow was followed by the 
fall of Uguccione when he seemed almost on the point of 

» Purgatorio, vi. 76-126. 

a See especially Epistolae, v-vii. ; Paradiso, xxx. 133-133. 


realising some of Dante's dearest hopes. The poet and the 
warrior alike found refuge at Verona now, with Can Grande 
della Scala, to whom Dante dedicated the third cantica of 
his Comedy, the Paradise.^ Did the exile's hopes revive 
again at the Court of Verona % Did the gallant and generous 
young soldier whose gracious and delicate hospitality called 
out such warm affection from his heart, ^ seem worthy to 
accomplish that great mission in which Uguccione and 
Henry had failed ? It is more than probable that such 
thoughts found room in Dante's sorrow-laden heart. And yet 
we cannot but suppose that while his certainty remained 
unshaken that in God's good time the deliverer would come, 
yet the hopes which centred in any single man must have 
had less and less assurance in them as disappointment 
after disappointment came. 

Be this as it may, near the close of his life Dante was 
still able to make Beatrice testify of him in the courts of 
Heaven : " Church militant has not a son stronger in hope 
than he. God knows it."^ Simple as these words are, yet 
by him who has scanned Dante's features and pondered 
on his life, they may well be numbered amongst those 
moving and strengthening human utterances that ring like 
a trumpet through the ages and call the soul to arms. 

But were Dante's hopes all concentrated on the advent 

1 See Epistola xi. 2 Paradiso^ xvii. 70-93. ^ ibid. xxv. 52-54. In 
this passage, however, ** Hope," as appears from the context, is used 
only in this special sense of the "sure and certain hope " of eternal 
bliss.— 1892. ^ 


of that political Messiah who was not to come in truth till 
our own day ? Had it been so, the " Divine Comedy " would 
never have been born. 

When Dante realised his own helplessness in the struggk 
against the panther of Florence, the lion of France, and the 
wolf of Rome, when he saw that to reorganise his country 
and remodel the social and political conditions of life would 
need the strong hand and the keen sword of some great hero 
raised by God, he also saw that for himself another way was 
opened, an escape from that wild forest into which his feet 
had strayed, an escape which it must be his task to point 
out to others, without which the very work of the hero for 
whom he looked would be in vain. 

The deadly forest represented moral as well as political 
confusion; the sunlit mountain, moral as well as political 
order ; and the beasts that cut off the ascent, moral as well 
as political foes to human progress. 

From this moral chaos there was deliverance for every 
faithful soul, despite the lion and the wolf; and though the noble 
hound came not to chase the foul beasts back to Hell, yet was 
Dante led from the forest gloom even to the light of Heaven. 

And how was he delivered ] By Divine grace he saw 
Hell and Purgatory and Heaven — so was he delivered. He 
saw the souls of men stripped of every disguise, he saw their 
secret deeds of good or ill laid bare. He saw Popes and 
Emperors, ancient heroes and modern sages, the rich, the 
valiant, the noble, the fair of face, the sweet of voice ; and 
no longer dazzled, no longer overawed, he saw them as they 


were, he saw their deeds, he saw the fruits of them. So 
was he delivered from the entanglements and perplexities, 
from the delusions and seductions of the world, so were 
his feet set upon the rock, so did he learn to sift the 
true from the false, to rise above all things base and set 
his soul at peace, even when sorrow was gnawing his 
heart to death. He, while yet clothed in flesh and blood, 
went amongst the souls of the departed, "heard the 
despairing shrieks of spirits long immersed in woe, who 
wept each one the second death ; saw suffering souls 
contented in the flames, for each one looked to reach the 
realms of bliss, though long should be the time," and 
lastly he saw the souls in Heaven, and gazed upon the very 
light of God. 1 

All this he saw and heard under the guidance of human 
and Divine philosophy, symbolised, or rather concentrated 
and personified, in Virgil and Beatrice. 

Of Virgil, and the unique position assigned to him in 
the Middle Ages, it is impossible here to speak at length. 
Almost from the first publication of the iEneid, and down 
to the time when the revival of learning reopened the 
treasures of Greek literature to Western Europe, Virgil 
reigned in the Latin countries supreme and unchallenged 
over the domain of poetry and scholarship. Within two 
generations of his own lifetime, altars were raised to him, 
h^ enthusiastic disciples, as to a diety. "VNTien Christianity 
spread, his supposed prediction of Christ in one of the 
1 Inferno, i. 112-12D. 


Eclogues endowed bim with the character of a prophet ; 
and a magic efficacy had already been attributed to 
verses taken from his works. Throughout the Middle 
Ages, his fame still grew as the supreme arbiter in every 
field of literature, and as the repository of more than 
human knowledge, while fantastic legends clustered round 
his name as the great magician and necromancer. To 
Dante there must also have been a special fascination in 
the Imperial scope and sympathies of the iEneid; for 
Virgil is pre-eminently the poet of the Roman Empire. 
But we must not pause to follow out this subject here. 
SuflSce it that Dante felt for Virgil a reverence so deep, 
an admiration so boundless, and an affection so glowing, 
that he became to him the very type of human wisdom 
and excellence, the first agent of his rescue from the maze 
of passion and error in which his life had been entangled. 

But Beatrice, the loved and lost, was the symbol and 
the channel of a higher wisdom, a diviner grace. She 
it was round whose sweet memory gathered the noblest 
purposes and truest wisdom of the poet's life. If ever he 
suffered the intensity of his devotion to truth and virtue 
for a moment to relax ; if ever, as he passed amongst 
luxurious courts, some siren voice soothed his cares with 
a moment of unworthy forgetfulness and ignoble ease ; if 
ever he suffered meaner cares or projects to draw him 
aside so much as in thought from his great mission, then 
it was Beatrice's glorified image that recalled him in tears 
of bitter shame and penitence to the path of pain, of 


effort, and of glory. It was her love that had rescued 
him from the fatal path; Virgil was but her agent and 
emissary, and his mission was complete when he had led 
him to her. Human wisdom and virtue could guide him 
through Hell and Purgatory, could show him the misery 
of sin, and the need of purifying pain and fire, but it was 
only in Beatrice's presence that he could fed not only 
the utter hatefulness and shame of an unworthy life, but 
also the blessedness of heaven.^ 

Under the guidance of Virgil and Beatrice, then, Dante 
had seen Hell and Purgatory and Heaven. This had 
snatched his soul from death, had taught him, even in 
the midst of the moral and political chaos of his age, 
how to live and after what to strive. Could he show 
others what he himself had seen ? Could he save them, 
as he was saved, from the meanness, from the blindness, 
from the delusions of the life they led? He could. 
Though it should be the toil of long and painful years, 
yet in the passionate conviction of his own experience he 
felt the power in him of making real to others what 
was so intensely real to him. But what did this involve ? 
The truth, if wholesome, was yet hard. He had dear 
and honoured friends whose lives had been stained by 
unrepented sin, and whose souls he had seen in Hell. 
Was he to cry aloud to all the world that these loved 
ones were amongst the damned, instead of tenderly hiding 

'^InfernOt i. 121-123, ii. 52- 142; Purgatorio, xxx. sqq. ; Paradiso^ 


their infirmities 1 Again, he was poor and an exile, he 
had lost "all things most dear," and was dependent for 
his very bread on the grace and favour of the great; 
yet if he told the world what he had seen, a storm of 
resentful hatred would crash upon him from every region 
of Italy. How would proud dames and lords brook to 
be told of their dead associates in sin and shame cursing 
their names from the very depths of Hell, and looking 
for their speedy advent there 1 How would pope and 
cardinal and monarch brook to be told by the powerless 
exile what he had heard from souls in Heaven, in 
Purgatory, and in Hell % E'en let them brook it as they 
might. His cry should be like the tempest that sweeps 
down upon the loftiest forest trees, but leaves the brush- 
wood undisturbed. The mightiest in the land should hear 
his voice, and henceforth none should think that loftiness 
of place or birth could shield the criminal. He would 
tell in utter truth what he had seen. He knew what 
power was in him to brand the infamous with infamy 
that none could wash away, to rescue the fair memory of 
those the world had wrongfully condemned, to say what 
none but he dare say, in verse which none but he could 
forge, and bring all those who hearkened through Hell and 
Purgatory into Heaven.^ 

To deliver this message was the work of his life, the end 
to which all his studies were directed, from the time when it 
first became clear to his own mind till hard upon the day of 
iParadtso, xvii. 103-142. 


his death. Hence his studious labours came to have a repre- 
sentative and vicarious character in his mind. He was 
proudly conscious that he lived and worked for mankind, and 
that his toil deserved the grateful recognition of his city and 
his country. 

This trait in his character comes out with striking force 
in the noble letter which he wrote in answer to the proffered 
permission to return to his beloved Florence, but upon dis- 
graceful conditions which he could not accept. The offer 
came when his fortunes were at their lowest ebb. Henry VII. 
was dead, Uguccione had lost his power. All hope of the 
exiles returning in triumph seemed at an end. Then came the 
offer of a pardon and recall, for which he had longed with all 
the passionate intensity of his nature. And yet it was but a 
mockery. It was a custom in Florence upon the Day of 
St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the city, to release 
certain malefactors from the public gaols on their performing 
set acts of contrition; and a decree was passed that all the poli- 
tical exiles might return to their homes on St. John's Day in 
1317, if they would pay a sum of money, walk in procession 
with tapers in their hands and with other tokens of guilt and 
penitence, to the church, and there offer themselves as ran- 
somed malefactors to the saint. 

Many of the exiles accepted the terms, but Dante's proud 
and indignant refusal shows us a spirit unbroken by 
disappointment and disaster, scorning to purchase ease by 
degradation. " Is this," he cries to the friend who communi- 
cated to him the conditions upon which he might return, "is 


this the glorious recall by which Dante Alighieri is summoned 
back to his country after well-nigh fifteen years of exile ? Is 
this what innocence well-known to all, is this what the heavy 
toil of unbroken study, has deserved ? Far be it from him 
who walks as her familiar with Philosophy to stoop to the 
base grovelling of a soul of clay and suffer himself thus to be 
treated like a vile malefactor. Far be it from the preacher 
of justice, when suffering outrage, to pay the acknowledgment 
of fair desert to the outrageous. 

** Not by this path can I return. But let a way be found 
that hurts not Dante's honour and fair fame, and I will tread 
it with no tardy feet. If no such road leads back to Florence, 
then will I never enter Florence more. What ! can I not 
gaze, wherever I may be, upon the mirror of sun and stars 1 
Can I not ponder on the sweetest truths in any region under 
heaven, but I must first make myself base and vile before 
the people and the State of Florence % " ^ 

Such was the answer of Dante Alighieri to that cruel 
insult which makes our cheeks glow even now with indignation. 
Such was the temper of the man who had seen Hell and Pur- 
gatory and Heaven, and who shrank not from the utterance 
of all that he had seen. 

Dante must already have been engaged in writing the 
Comedy. Amongst the sufferings and burdens which were 
fast drawing him to the grave, amongst the agonies of indig- 
nation, of regret, of hope, of disappointment which still 
* Epistola X. 


racked his soul, the promise of the deep peace of God had 
already come upon him ; beneath a storm of passion at which 
our hearts quail was a calm of trustful self-surrender which 
no earthly power could disturb ; and ere long the harmonies 
of Paradise swelled in the poet's heart and sought for 
utterance iu his last years. 

But though his spirit was thus rapt to Heaven, he never 
lost his hold upon the earth ; never disdained to toil as best 
he might for the immediate instruction or well-being of his 
kind. More than once his eloquence and skill enabled him 
to render signal service to his protectors in conductingdelicate 
negotiations, and at the same time to further that cause of 
Italian unity which was ever near his heart. Nor did the 
progress of his great work, the Comedy, altogether put an end 
to the varied subsidiary activity as a poet, a moralist, and a 
student of language and science, which had filled the earlier 
years of his exile. 

One characteristic example of this by-work must suflBce. 
In the last year but one of his life when he must have been 
meditating the last, perhaps the sublimest, cantos of the 
Paradise, when he might well have been excused if he had 
ceased to concern himself with any of the lower grades of 
truth, he heard a certain question of physics discussed and 
re-discussed, and never decided because of the specious but 
sophistical arguments which were allowed to veil it in doubt. 
The question was whether some portions of the sea are or are 
not on a higher level than some portions of the land ; and 
Dante, " nursed from his boyhood in the love of truth," as he 


says, " could not endure to leave the question unresolved, 
and determined to demonstrate the facts and to refute the 
arguments alleged against them. " ^ Accordingly he defended 
his thesis on a Sunday in one of the churches of Verona 
under the presidency of Can Grande. 

This essay is a model of close reasoning and sound 
scientific method, and the average nineteenth century reader, 
with the average contempt for fourteenth century science, 
■would find much to reflect upon should he read and under- 
stand it. The vague and inconclusive style of reasoning 
against which Dante contends is still rampant everywhere, 
though its forms have changed ; while the firm grasp of 
scientific method and the incisive reasoning of Dante himself 
are still the exception in spite of all our modem training 
in research. 

Thus Dante was engaged to the last upon the whole field 
of human thought. Such was the scope and power of his 
mind that he could embrace at the same moment the very 
opposite poles of speculation ; and such was his passion for 
truth that, when gazing upon the very presence of God, he 
could not bear to leave men in error when he could set them 
right, though it were but as to the level of the land and sea. 

But we must hasten to a close. Let us turn from the 
consideration of Dante's work to a picture of personal 
character drawn by bis own hand. It is his ideal of a life 

^ QucBstio de Aqua et Terra, § 1. The authenticity of this treatisQ 
is hotly disputed by many recent scholars. — 1892. 


inspired by that " gentleness " for which, sic the days d| 
chivalry, we have had no precise equivalent in language, 
and which is itself too rare in every age. 

The soul that this celestial grace adorns 

In secret holds it not ; 

For from the first, when she the body weds. 

She shows it, until death : 

Gentle, obedient, and alive to shame. 

Is seen in her first age, 

Adding a comely beauty to the frame. 

With all accomplishments : 

In youth is temperate and resolute. 

Replete with love and praise of courtesy. 

Placing in loyalty her sole delight : 

And in declining age 

Is prudent, just, and for her bounty known ; 

And joys within herself 

To listen and discourse of others' good : 

Then in the fourth remaining part of life 

To God is re-espoused, 

Contemplating the end that draws a-nigh. 

And blesseth all the reasons that are past j 

— Reflect now, how the many are deceived I ' 

Cherishing such an ideal, Dante wandered from court 
to court of Italy, finding here and there a heart of gold, but 
for the most part moving amongst those to whom grace and 
purity and justice were but names. Can we wonder that 
sometimes the lonely exile felt as if his own sorrow-laden 
heart were the sole refuge upon earth of love and temperance'/ 

^ Canzone xvi., * Le dolci rime,' st. vii. See Gonvito, trat iv. 
Translation slightly altered from Lyell. 


Three nol.^^ dames, he tells us — noble in themselves but 
in nought else, for their garments were tattered, their feet 
unshod, their hair dishevelled, and their faces stained with 
tears — came and flung themselves at the portal of his heart, 
for they knew that Love was there. Moved with deep pity. 
Love came forth to ask them of their state. They were 
Rectitude, Temperance, and Generosity, once honoured by 
the world, now driven out in want and shame, and they 
came there for refuge in their woe. Then Love, with 
moistened eyes, bade them lift up their heads. If they 
were driven begging through the world, it was for men to 
weep and wail whose lives had fallen in such evil times ; 
but not for them, hewn from the eternal rock — it was not 
for them to grieve. A race of men would surely rise at last 
whose hearts would turn to them again. And hearing thus 
how exiles great as these were grieved and comforted, the 
lonely poet thought his banishment his glory. 

Yet when he looked for his sweet home and found it not, 
the agony that could not break his spirit fast destroyed his 
flesh, and he knew that death had laid the key upon his 

When this sublime and touching poem was composed 
w^e have no means of knowing, but it can hardly have been 
long before the end. When that end came, Dante can 
barely have completed his great life work, ho can barely have 
written the last line of the ** Divine Comedy." He had been 
on an unsuccessful mission in the service of his last protector, 
^ Canzone xix., ' Tre donne.' 


Guido da Polenta of Ravenna. On his return he was seized 
with a fatal illness, and died at Ravenna in 1321, at the age 
of fifty-six. 

Who can grudge him his rest ? As we read the four tracts 
of the "Convito," which were to have been the first of fifteen, 
but must now remain alone, as we are brought to a sudden 
stand at the abrupt termination of his unfinished work on 
the dialects and poetry of Italy, ^ as we ponder on the 
unexhausted treasures that still lay in the soul of him who 
could write as Dante wrote even to the end, we can hardly 
suppress a sigh to think that our loss purchased his rest so 
soon. But his great work was done ; he had told his vision, 
that men might go with him to Hell, to Purgatory, and to 
Heaven, and be saved from all things base. Then his weary 
head was laid down in peace, and his exile was at an end. 
** That fair fold in which, a lamb, he lay,"^ was never opened 
to him again, but he went home, and the blessings of the 
pure in heart and strong in love go with him. 

The thoughts with which we turn from the contemplation 
of Dante's life and work find utterance in the lines of 
Michael Angelo. " The works of Dante were unrecognised, 
and his high purpose, by the ungrateful folk whose blessings 
rest on all — except the just. Yet would his fate were mine ! 
For his drear exile, with his virtue linked, glad would I 
change the fairest state on earth." 

1 Z)e Vidgari Eloqucntia. " Paradiso, xxv. 5 


The first cantica of the "Divine Coraed^r the Inferno or 

Hell — is the best known of all Dante's work in prose or 
verse, in Latin or Italian ; and though students of Dante 
may sometimes regret this fact, yet no one can be at a 
moment's loss to understand it. 

For the attributes of heart and brain requisite for some 
kind of appreciation of the Inferno are by many degrees 
more common than those to which the other works of Dante 
fippeal It is easy to imagine a reader who has not even 
begun truly to understand either the poet or the poem never 
thclcss rendering a sincere tribute of admiration to the 
colossal force of the Inferno, and feeling the weird spell of 
fascination and horror ever tightening its grasp on him as he 
descends from circle to circle of that starless realm. 

There is no mystery in the inveterate tendency to regard 
Dante as pre-eminently the poet of Hell. Nor is it a new 
phenomenon. Tradition tells of the women who shrank 
aside as Dante passed them by, and said one to another, 
shuddering as they spoke, " See how his black hair crisped 
in the fire as he passed through Hell ! " But no tradition 
tells of awe-struck passers-by who noted that the stairs had 
been wiped from that clear brow in Purgatory, that the gleam 
of that pure and dauntless eye had been kindled in Heaven. 


/!6 HELL 

The machinery of the Inferno, then, is moderately familiar 
to almost all. Dante, lost in the darksome forest, scared 
from the sunlit heights by the wild beasts that guard the 
mountain side, meets the shade of Virgil, sent to rescue him 
by Beatrice, and suffered by Omnipotence to leave for a time 
his abode in the limbo of the unbaptised, on this mission of 
redeeming love. Virgil guides Dante through the open gate 
of Hell, down through circle after circle of contracting span 
and increasing misery and sin, down to the central depth 
where the arch-rebel Satan champs in his triple jaws the 
arch-traitors against Church and State, Judas I&cariot, and 
Brutus and Cassius.* 

Through all these circles Dante passes under Virgil's 
guidance. He sees and minutely describes the varying 
tortures apportioned to the varying guilt of the damned, and 
converses with the souls of many illustrious dead in torment. 

And is this the poem that has enthralled and still enthralls 
so many a heart? Are we to look for the strengthening, 
purifying, and uplifting of our lives, are we to look for the 
very soul of poetry in an almost unbroken series of descrip- 
tions, unequalled in their terrible vividness, of ghastly 
tortures, interspersed with tales of shame, of guilt, of misery] 
Even so. And we shall not look in vain. 

But let us listen first to Dante's own account of tho 

subject-matter of his poem. Five words of his are better 

than a volume of the commentators. " The subject of the 

whole work, literally accepted," he says, " is the state of souls 

» Compare pp. 15-1 


after death. . . But if the work is taken allegorically the 
subject is Man, as rendering himself liable, by good or ill 
desert in the exercise of his free will, to rewarding or 
punishing justice." * 

According to Dante, then, the real subject of the Inferno 
is " Man, as rendered liable, by ill desert in the exercise of 
his free will, to punishing justice." Surely a subject fraught 
with unutterable sadness, compassed by impenetrable mystery, 
but one which in the hands of a prophet may well be made 
to yield the bread of life ; a subject fitly introduced by those 
few pregnant words, "The day was going, and the dusky 
air gave respite to the animals that are on earth from 
all their toils ; and I alone girt me in solitude to bear 
the strain both of the journey and the piteous sight, which 
memory that errs shall not retrace." * 

Now if this be the true subject of the poem, it follows 
that all those physical horrors of which it seems almost to 
consist must be strictly subordinate to something else, must 
be part of the machinery or means by which the end of 
the poet is reached, but in no way the end itself. 

If the subject of the poem is a moral one, then the 
descriptions of physical torment and horror must never 
even for a moment overbalance or overwhelm the trub 
** motive " of the work, must never even for a moment so 
crush or deaden the feelings as to render them incapable of 
1 Epistola xi. § 8. 2 Jnfernoy ii. 1-6. 

48 HELL 

moral impressions, must never in a single instance leave a 
prevailingly physical impression upon the mind. 

And it is just herein that the transcendent power of the 
Inferno is displayed. Horrors which rise and ever rise in 
intensity till they culminate in some of the ghastliest scenes 
ever conceived by mortal brain are from first to last held under 
absolute control, are forced to support and intensify moral 
conceptions which in less mighty hands they would have 
numbed and deadened. Oh, the pity of this sin, the unutter- 
able, indelible pity of it ! Its wail can never be stilled in 
our hearts while thought and memory remain. The misery 
of some forms of sin, the foul shame of others, the vileness, 
the hatefulness, the hideous deformity of others yet — this, 
and not horror at the punishment of sin, is what Dante stamps 
and brands upon our hearts as we descend with him towards 
the central depths, stamps and brands upon our hearts till the 
pity, the loathing, the horror can endure no more; — then in 
the very depth of Hell, at the core of the Universe, with one 
mighty strain that leaves us well-nigh spent, we turn upon 
that central point, and, leaving Hell beneath our feet, 
ascend by the narrow path at the antipodes. 

With the horror and the burden of the starless land far 
off, we lift up our eyes again to see the stars, and our 
flouls are rea^y for the purifying sufferings of Purgatory. 

Sometimes the tortures of the damned are a mere physical 
translation, so to speak, of their crimes. Thus the ruthless 
disseminators of strife and dissension who have torn asunder 


those who belonged one to another, those who had no proper 
existence apart from one another, are in their turn hewn and 
cleft by the avenging sword ; and ever as their bodies reunite 
and their wounds are healed, the fierce blow falls again. 
Amongst them Dante sees the great troubadour, Bertram de 
Bom, who fostered the rebellion of the sons of our own king 
Henry II. In that he made father and son each other's 
enemy, his head is severed from his trunk, his brain from its 
own root.' 

In other cases a transparent metaphor or allegory dictates 
the form of punishment ; as when the hypocrites crawl in 
utter weariness under the crushing weight of leaden garments, 
shaped like monkish cloaks and cowls, and all covered with 
shining gold outside.* Or when the flatterers and sycophants 
wallow in filth, which fitly symbolises their foul life on 
earth. 3 

It is probable that some special significance and appropri- 
ateness might be traced in almost all the forms of punishment 
in Dante's Hell, though it is not always obvious. But one 
thing at least is obvious : the uniform congruousness of the 
impression which the physical and moral factors of each 
description combine to produce. In fact, the Inferno is an 
account of ** man, as deserving ill by the exercise of his free 
will," in which all the external surroundings are brought into 
precise accord with the central conception. The tortures are 
Dnly the background ; and as in the picture of a great artist, 

1 InfernOy xxviii. 2 m^, xxiii. 58 sqq, 
3 Jhid xviii. 103-136. 

so HELL 

whether we can trace any special significance and appropri- 
ateness in the background or not, we always feel that it sup- 
ports the true subject of the picture and never overpowers it, 
so it is here. Man as misusing his free will. This is the real 
subject of the Inferno. All else is accessory and sub- 

But if this be so, we should expect to find an endless 
variety and gradation, alike of guilt and punishment, as wa 
pass through the circles of Hell. And so we do. At one 
moment indignation and reproof are all swallowed up in pity, 
and the suffering of the exiled soul only serves to quicken an 
infinite compassion in our hearts, a compassion not so much 
for the punishment of sin as for sin itself with its woeful loss 
and waste of the blessings and the holiness of life. At another 
moment we are brought face to face with a wretch whose 
tortures only serve to throw his vileness into sharper relief ; 
and when we think of him and of his deeds, of him and his 
victims, we can understand those awful words of Virgil'd 
when Dante weeps, "Art thou too like the other fools? The 
death of pity is true pity here." ' Infinite pity would indeed 
embrace the most abandoned, but it is only weak and mis- 
directed pity that wakes or slumbers at the dictate of mere 

And as there is infinite variety of guilt and woe, so is 
there infinite variety of character in Dante's Hell. Though 
the poet condemns with sternest impartiality all who have 

1 Inferno^ xx. 27, 28 : * Qui vive la pietk qand' h ben morta." Tho 
double force of pieta, "pi[e]ty," is lost in the translation. 


died in unrepented sin, yet he recognises and honours the 
moral distinction amongst them. What a difference, for 
instance, between the wild blaspheming robber, Vanni 
Fucci,' and the defiant Capaneus,*^ a prototype of Milton's 
Satan, the one incited by the bestial rage of reckless self- 
abandonment, the other by the proud self-reliance of a spirit 
that eternity cannot break — alike in their defiance of the 
Almighty, but how widely severed in the sources whence 
it springs. 

Look again where Jason strides: The wrongs he did 
Medea and Hypsipyle have condemned him to the fierce 
lash under which his base companions shriek and flee ; but 
he, still kingly in his mien, without a tear or cry bears his 
eternal pain.^ 

See Farinata, the great Florentine — in his ever burning 
tomb he stands erect and proud, *' as holding Hell in great 
disdain " ; tortured less by the flames than by the thought 
that the faction he opposed is now triumphant in his city ; 
proud, even in Hell, to remember how once he stood alone 
between his country and destruction.* 

See again where Pietro delle Vigne, in the ghastly forest 
of suicides, longs with a passionate longing that his fidelity 
at that time when he " held both the keys of the great 
Frederick's heart " should be vindicated upon earth from 
the unjust calumnies that drove him to self-slaughter. '^ 

1 Infernoy xxiv. 112— xx v. 9, &c. 2 j]yi^ xiv. 43-66. 

» lUd. xviii. 82-96. < ma, x. 22-93. 

8/6idxxiii., 55-78. 

52 HELL 

And see where statesmen and soldiers of Florence, them- 
selves condemned for foul and unrepented sin, still love the 
city in which they lived, still long to hear some good of her. 
As the flakes of fire fall ** like snow upon a windless day " on 
their defenceless bodies, see with what dismay they gaze into 
one another's eyes when Dante brings ill news to them of 
Florence. ^ 

In a word, the souls in Hell are what they were on earth, 
no better and no worse. This is the key-note to the com- 
prehension of the poem. No change has taken place ; none 
are made rebels to God's will, and none are brought into 
submission to it, by their punishment ; but all are as they 
were. Even amongst the vilest there is only the rejection of 
a thin disguise, no real increase of shamelessness. Many 
souls desire to escape notice and to conceal their crimes, just 
as they woiild have done on earth ; many condemn their 
evil deeds and are ashamed of them, just as they would have 
been on earth ; but there is no change of character, no in- 
fusion of a new spirit either for good or ill ; with all their 
variety and complexity of character, the unrepentant 
sinners wake in Hell, as they would wake on earth, our 
mingled pity and horror, our mingled loathing and admira- 
tion. Man as misusing his free will, in all the scope arid 
variety of the infinite theme, is the subject of the poem. 

And this brings us to another consideration : the eternity 
of Dante's Hell. Those who know no other line of Dante, 
know the last verse of the inscription upon the gate of Hell ; 
^ InfemOf xvi. 64-85. 


" All Lope abandon, ye that enter here." The whole inscrip- 
tion is as follows : *' Through me the way lies to the doleful 
city j through me the way lies to eternal pain ; through me 
the way lies 'mongst the people lost. 'Twas justice moved 
my Lofty Maker ; Divine Power made me, Wisdom Supreme 
and Primal Love. Before me were no things created, save 
things eternal ; and I, too, last eternal. All hope abandon, 
ye that enter here." 

The gates of Hell reared by the Primal Love ! If we 
believe in the eternity of sin and evil, the eternity of suffer- 
ing and punishment follows of necessity. To be able to 
acquiesce in the one, but to shrink from the thought of the 
other, is sheer weakness. The eternity and hopelessness of 
Dante's Hell are the necessary corrollaries of the impenitence 
of his sinners. To his mind wisdom and love cannot exist 
without justice, and justice demands that eternal ill-desert 
shall reap eternal woe. 

But how could one who so well knew what an eternal 
Hell of sin and suffering meant, believe it to be founded on 
eternal love? Why did not Dante's heart in the very 
strength of that eternal love rebel against the hideous belief 
in eternal sin and punishment ? I cannot answer the ques- 
tion I have asked. Dante believed in the Church, believed 
in the theology she taught, and could not have been what 
he was had he not done so. Had he rejected any of the 
cardinal beliefs of the Christianity of his age and rebelled 
against the Church, he might have been the herald of future 
^ Inferno f iii. 1-9. 

54 HELL 

reformations ; bat ho could never have been the index and 
interpreter to remotest generation of that mediaeval 
Catholic religion of which his poem is the very soul. 

Meanwhile note this, that if ever man realised the awful 
mystery and contradiction involved in the conception of a 
good God condemning the virtuous heathen to eternal exile, 
that man was Dante. If ever heart of man was weighed 
down beneath the load of pity for the damned, that heart 
was Dante's. The virtuous heathen he places in the first 
round of Hell ; here " no plaint is to be heard except of 
sighs, which make the eternal air to tremble " j here, with 
no other torture than the death of hope without the death 
of longing, they live in neither joy nor sojtow, eternal exiles 
from the realms of bliss. ^ 

Dante, as we shall see hereafter, longed with a passionate 
thirsty longing to know how the divine justice could thus 
condemn the innocent. But his thirst was never slaked ; 
it was and remained an utter mystery to him ; and there are 
few passages of deeper pathos than those in which he 
remembers that his beloved and honoured guide and master, 
even Virgil, the very type of human wisdom and excellence, 
was himself amongst these outcasts. * 

Again and again, as we pass with Dante through the 
circles of Hell, we feel that his yearning pity for the lost, 
racking his very soul and flinging him senseless to the ground 
for misery, shows an awakening spirit which could not long 

1 Inferno, iv. 23-45, 84. 

3 Compare e.g. Furgatorio, ill. 34-45, xxii. 67-73. 


exist ill human hearts without teaching them that God^s 
'adeeming pity is greater and more patient than their own. 
So, too, when Francesca and Paolo, touched by Dante's 
pitying sympathy, exclaim, ** Oh, thou gracious being, if we 
were dear to God, how would we pray for thee ! " ^ who can 
help feeling that Dante was not far from the thought that all 
Bouls are dear to God % 

Meanwhile, how strong that faith which could lift up 
ftU this weight of misery and woe, and still believe in the 
Highest Wisdom and the Primal Love ! Only the man who 
knew the holiness of human life to the full as well as he 
knew its infamy, only the man who had seen Purgatory and 
Heaven, and who had actually felt the love of God, could 
know that with all its mystery and misery the universe was 
made not only by the Divine Power, but by the Supreme 
Wisdom and the Primal Love, could weave this Trinity of 
Power, Wisdom, Love, into the Unity of the all-suataining 
God, who made both Heaven and Hell. 

And we still have to face the same insoluble mystery. 
The darker shade is indeed lifted from the picture upon 
which we gaze ; we have no eternal Hell, no eternity of sin, 
to reckon with ; but to us too comes the question, "Can the 
world with all its sin and misery be built indeed upon the 
Primal Love?" And our answer too must be the answer not 
of knowledge but of faith. Only by making ourselves God's 
fellow workers till we feel that the Divine power and the 
Primal Love are one, can we gain a faith that will sustain 
^Ir\femo, v. 88, 91, 92. 

56 HELL 

the mystery it cannot solve. Alas ! how often our weaker 
faith fails in its lighter task, how often do we speak of sin 
and misery as though they were discoveries of yesterday that 
had brought new trials to our faith, unknown before ; how 
often do we feel it hard to say even of earth what Dante in 
the might of his unshaken faith could say of Hell itself — ■ 
that it is made by Power, Wisdom, Love ! 

But perhaps we have dwelt too long already on this topic, 
and in any case we must now hasten on. Dante's Hell, as we 
have seen, represents sinful and impenitent humanity with all 
itsfittingsurroundings and accessories, cut off from everything 
that can distract the attention, confuse the moral impression, 
or alleviate its appalling strength. And as the magic power 
of his words, with the absolute sincerity and clearness of his 
own conceptions, forces us to realise the details of his vision 
as if we had trodden every step of the way with him, this 
result follows amongst others; that we realise, with a 
vividness that can never again grow dim, an existence 
without any one of those sweet surroundings and embellish- 
ments of human life which seem the fit support and reflection 
of purity and love. 

We have been in a land where none of the fair sounds or 
sights of nature have access, no flowers, no stars, no light, and 
if there are streams and hills there they are hideously 
transformed into instruments and emblems not of beauty but 
of horror. We are made to realise all this, and to feel that 
it is absolutely and eternally fitting as the abode of sin and 


of impenitence. And when once this association has been 
stamped upon our minds, the beauty and the sweetness of 
the world in which we live gain a new meaning for us. 
They become the standing protest of all that is round ua 
against every selfish, every sinful thought or deed; the 
standing appeal to us to bring our souls into sweet harmony 
with their surroundings, since God in His mercy brings not 
their surroundings into ghastly harmony with them. 

When we have been with the poor wretch, deep down 
in Hell, who gasps in his burning fever for "the rivulets 
that from the green slopes of Casintino drop down into the 
Amo, freshening the soft, cool channels, where they glide," ' 
and have realised that in that land there are not and ought 
not to be the cooling streams and verdant slopes of earth, we 
can never again enjoy the sweetness and the peace of nature 
without our hearts being consciously or unconsciously purified, 
without every evil thing in our lives feeling the rebuke. 

When we have known what it is to be in a starless land, 

and have felt how strange and incongruous the fair sights of 

Heaven would be, have felt that they would have no place 

or meaning there, have felt that cheerless gloom alone befits 

the souls enveloped there, then when we leave the dreary 

realms and once more gaze upon the heavens by night and 

day, they are more to us than they have ever been before, 

they are indeed what Dante so often calls them, using the 

language of the falconers, the lure by which God summons 

back our wayward souls from vain and mean pursuits. 

* IiifemOf XXX. 64-67. 


58 HELL 

Look, again, upon this fearful picture. Dante and Virgil 
come to a black and muddy lake in which the passionate tear 
and smite one another in bestial rage; and all over its surface 
are bubbles rising up. They come from the cries of the 
morose and sullen ones " who are fixed in the slime at the 
bottom of the lake. They cry : * Gloomy we were in the 
Bweetairthat the sun gladdens, bearing in our heart the smoke 
of sullenness ; now we are gloomy here in the black slime ' 
— such is the strain that gurgles in their throats, but cannot 
find full utterance." ' Who that has seen those bubbles rise 
upon the lake can ever suff'er himself again i;o cherish 
sullenness within his heart without feeling at the very instant 
the rebuke of the " sweet air that the sun gladdens," and 
thinking of that gurgling strain of misery % 

Another of the lessons taught by the Inferno is that no 
plea, however moving, can avail the sinner, or take away 
the sinfulness of sin, that no position can place him above 
punishment, that no authority can shield him from it. 

The guilty love of Francesco and Paolo, so strong, so 
deathless in that it was love, has sunk them to Hell instead 
of raising them to Heaven in that it was guilty. Stronger 
to make them one than Hell to sever them, it is powerless 
to redeem the sin to which it has allied itself, and its 
tenderness has but swelled the eternal anguish of those whom 
it still joins together, because it has suffered the sanctuary of 
life, which love is set to guard, to be polluted and betrayed. 
1 Infemoy vii. 117-126. 


Sung in those strains of deathless tenderness and pity where 
" tears seem to drop from the very words," the story of this 
guilty love reveals the fatalest of all mischoice, and tells us 
that no passion, however wild in its intensity, however 
innocent in its beginnings, however unpremeditated in its 
lawless outburst, however overmastering in its pleas, however 
loyal to itself in time and in eternity, may dare to raise itself 
above the laws of God and man, or claim immunity from its 
wretched consequences for those who are its slaves. How 
infinite the pity and the waste, how irreparable the loss, 
when the love that might have been an ornament to Heaven, 
adds to the unmeasured guilt and anguish of Hell a wail of 
more piercing sorrow than rings through all its lower depths ! 

Nor could any height of place claim exemption from the 
moral law. Dante was a Catholic, and his reverence for the 
Papal Chair was deep. But against the faithless Popes he 
cherished a fiery indignation proportioned to his high estimate 
of the sacred office they abused. In one of the most fearful 
passages of the Inferno he describes, in terms that gain a 
terrible significance from one of the forms of criminal execu- 
tion practised in his day, how he stood by a round hole in one 
of the circles of Hell, in which Pope Nicholas III. was 
thrust head foremost— stood like the confessor hearing the 
assassin's final words, and heard the guilty story of Pope 
Nicholas. ^ 

It is characteristic of Dante that he tells us here, as if 
quite incidentally, that these holes were about the size of the 
^ InfernOy xix. 

6o HELL 

baptising stands or fonts in the Church of San Giovanni, " one 
of which," says he, " I broke not many years ago to save one 
who was suflfocating in it. Let this suffice to disabuse all men. " 
Evidently he had been taxed with sacrilege for saving the 
life of the dying child at the expense of the sacred vessel, 
and it can hardly be an accident that he recalls this circum- 
stance in the Hell of the sacrilegious Popes and Churchmen. 
These men who had despied their sacred trust and turned it 
to basest trafficking, were the representatives of that hard 
system of soulless officialism that would pollute the holiest 
functions of the Church, while reverencing with superstitious 
scruple their outward symbols and instruments. 

And if the Papal office could not rescue the sinner that held 
it, neither could the Papal authority shield the sins of others. 
It is said that Catholics have not the keeping of their own 
consciences. Dante at least thought they had. In the Hell 
of fraudulent counsellors, wrapped in a sheet of eternal flame 
one comes to him and cries, " Grudge not to stay and speak 
with me a while. Behold I grudge it not, although I bum." 
It is Guide da Montefeltro, whose fame in council and in war 
had gone forth to the ends of the earth. All wiles and covert 
ways he knew, and there had ever been more of the fox than 
of the lion in him. But when he saw himself arriving at 
that age when every man should lower sails and gather in his 
ropes, then did he repent of all that once had pleased him, 
and girding him with the cord of St. Francis he became a 
friar. Alas ! his penit^^nce would have availed him well but 
for the Prince of the new Pharisees, Pope Boniface VIII., 


who was waging war with Christians who should have been 
his friends, hard by the Lateran. " He demanded counsel 
of me," continues Guido, " but I kept silence, for his words 
seemed drunken. Then he said to me * Let not thy heart 
misdoubt ; henceforth do I absolve thee, but do thou teach 
me so to act that I may cast Prenestina to the ground, 
Heaven I can shut and open, as thou knowest.* . . . Then 
the weighty arguments impelled me to think silence worse 
than speech ; and so I said, ' Father— since thou dost cleanse 
me from that guilt wherein I now must fall — long promise 
and performance short will make thee triumph in thy lofty 
seat.* Then when I died St. Francis came for me, but one 
of the black cherubim said to him * Do me no wrong, nor 
take thou him away. He must come down amongst my 
menials, e*en for the fraudulent advice he gave, since when 
I have kept close upon his hair. He who repents not cannot 
be absolved, nor can one will the same thing he repents, the 
contradiction not permitting it.' Ah wretched me ! how did 
I shudder then, for he laid hold of me, and with the cry 
* Haply thou knew'st not I was logician?' bore me to 
judgment." "^ 

Who can fail to recognise the utter truth of Dante's 
teaching here? What can stand between a man's own 
conscience and his duty? Though the very symbol and 
mouthpiece of the collective wisdom and piety of Christendom 
should hold the shield of authority before the culprit, yet it 
cannot ward off the judgment for one single deed done in 
^ JnfimOf xxvii. 

62 HELL 

violation of personal moral conviction. When once we have 
realised the meaning of this awful passage, how can we ever 
urge again as an excuse for unfaithfulness to our own 
consciences, that the assurance of those we loved and 
reverenced overcame our scruples'? Here as everywhere. 
Dante strips sin of every specious and distracting circum- 
stance, and shows it to us where it ought to be — in Hell. 

Contrast with the scene we have just looked upon the 
companion picture from the Purgatory; where Buonconte da 
Montefeltro tells how he fled on foot from the battlefield of 
Campaldino, his throat pierced with a mortal wound ensan- 
guining the earth. Where Archiano falls into the Arno there 
darkness came upon him, and he fell crossing his arms upon 
his breast and calling on the name of Mary with his last 
breath. " Then," he continues, ** God's angel came and took 
me, and Hell's angel shrieked, * thou of Heaven, wherefore 
dost thou rob me % Thou bear'st with thee the eternal part 
of him, all for one sorry tear which saves it from me. But 
with the other part of him I'll deal in other fashion.' " Upon 
which the infuriated demon swells the torrent with rain, 
sweeps the warrior's body from the bank, dashes away the 
hateful cross into which its arms are folded, and in impotent 
rage rolls it along the river bed and buries it in slime so that 
men never see it more ; but the soul is meanwhile saved. ^ 

Here we must pause. I have made no attempt to give a 
systematic account of the Inferno, still less to select the 
finest passages from it. I have only tried to interpret some 
1 Purgatono, v. 85-129. 


of the leading thoughts which run through it, some of the 
deep lessons which it can hardly fail to teach the reader. 

Like all great works, the Inferno should be studied both 
in detail and as a whole in order to be rightly understood ; 
and when we understand it, even partially, when we have 
been with Dante down through all the circles to that central 
lake of ice in which all humanity seems frozen out of the base 
traitors who showed no humanity on earth, when we have 
faced the icy breath of the eternal air winnowed by Satan's 
wings, and have been numbed to every thought and feeling 
except one — one which has been burned and frozen into our 
hearts through all those rounds of shame and woe — the 
thought of the pity, the misery, the hatefulness of sin ; then, 
but then only, we shall be ready to understand the Purgatory, 
shall know something of what the last lines of the Inferno 
meant to Dante; **We mounted up, he first and second I 
until through a round opening I saw some of those beauteous 
things that Heaven bears ; and thence we issued forth again 
to see the stars." ^ 

1 //j/erno xxxiv. 13(5-139. 


" Leaving behind her that so cruel sea, the bark of poes;y 
now spreads her sails to speed o'er happier waters ; and I 
sing of that mid kingdom where the soul of man is freed 
from stain, till worthy to ascend to Heaven." ^ Such are 
the opening words of Dante's Purgatory, and they drop 
like balm upon our seared and wounded hearts when we 
have escaped from the dread abode of eternal ill-desert. 

"Man, atoning for the misuse of his free will," may be 
regarded as the subject of this poem. And it brings it, in a 
sense, nearer to us than either the Hell or the Paradise. 
Perhaps it ought not to surprise us that the Purgatory has 
not by any means taken such a hold of the general imagin- 
ation as the Hell, and that its machinery and incidents are 
therefore far less widely known; for the power of the 
Purgatory does not overwhelm us, whether we understand 
or no, like that of the Inferno. There are passages indeed 
in the poem, which take the reader by storm, and force 
themselves upon his memory, but as a rule it must be felt in 
its deeper spiritual meaning to be felt at all. Its gentleness 
is ultimately as strong as the relentless might of the Hell, 
but it works more slowly and takes time to sink into our 
hearts and difiuse its influence there. Nor again need we be 
surprised that the inner circle of Dante students often 
^ FurgatoriOy i. 1-6, 



concentrate their fullest attention and admiration upon the 
Paradise, for it is the Paradise in which the poet is most 
absolutely unique and unapproached, and in it his admirers 
rightly find the supreme expression of his spirit. 

And yet there is much in the Purgatory that seems to 
render it peculiarly fitted to support our spiritual life and 
help us in our daily conflict, much which we might reasonably 
have expected would give its images and allegories a permanent 
place in the devout heart of Christendom ; for, as already 
hinted, it is nearer to us in our struggles and imperfections, 
in our aspirations and our conscious unworthiness, nearer to 
us in our love of purity and our knowledge that our own 
hearts are stained with sin, in our desire for the fulness of 
God's light, and our knowledge that we are not yet worthy or 
ready to receive it ; it is nearer to us in its piercing appeals, 
driven home to the moral experience of every day and hour, 
nearer to us in its mingled longing and resignation, in its 
mingled consolations and suflferings, nearer to us in its deep 
unrest of unattained but unrelinquished ideals, than either 
the Hell in its ghastly harmony of impenitence and suffering, 
or the Paradise in its ineffable fruition. 

Moreover, the allegorical appropriateness of the various 
punishments is far more obvious and simple, and the spiritual 
significance of the whole machinery clearer and more direct, 
in the Purgatory than in the Hell. In a word, the Purgatory 
is more obviously though not more truly, more directly 
though not more profoundly, moral and spiritual in its 
purport than the Hell. 


Dante addresses some of the sufferers on the fifth circle 
of Purgatory as " chosen ones of God whose pains are soothed 
by justice and by hope."' And in truth the spirits in 
Purgatory are already utterly separated from their sins in 
heart and purpose, are already chosen ones of God. TJie^^ 
are deeply sensible of the justice of their punishment, and 
they are fed by the certain hope that at last, when purifying 
pain has done its work, their past sins will no longer separate 
them from God, they will not only be parted in sympathy 
and emotion from their own sinful past, but will be so cut off 
from it as no longer to feel it as their own, no longer to 
recognise it as part of themselves, no longer to be weighed 
down by it. Then they will rise away from it into God's 
presence. " Repenting and forgiving," says one of them, "we 
passed from life, at peace with God, who pierces our hearts 
with longing to see Him."^ 

The souls in Purgatory, then, are already transformed by 
the thirst for the living water, already filled with the longing 
to see God, already at one with Him in will, already 
gladdened by the hope of entering into full communion with 
Him. But they do not wish to go into His presence yet. 
The sense of shame and the sense of justice forbid it. They 
feel that the unexpiated stains of former sins still cleave to 
them, making them unfit for Heaven, and they love the 
purifying torments which are burning those stains away. 
In the topmost circle of Purgatory amongst the fierce flames 
from which Dante would have hurled himself into molten 
1 Furgatorio, xix, 76 sqq. * Ibid. v. 66-57. 


glass for coolness, he sees souls whose cheeks flush at the 
memory of their sin with a shame that adds a burning to the 
burning flame ; whilst others clustering at the edge that they 
may speak with him yet take good heed to keep within the 
flame, lest for one moment they should have respite from the 
fierce pain which is purging away their sins and drawing 
them nearer to their desire.^ 

Sweet hymns of praise and supplication are the fitting 
solace of this purifying pain ; and as Dante passes through 
the first of the narrow ascents that lead from circle to circle 
of Purgatory, he may well contrast this place of torment 
with the one that he has left, may well exclaim, " Ah me ! 
how diverse are these straits from those of Hell ! " ^ 

Penitence, humility, and peace — though not the highest 
or the fullest peace — are the key-notes of the Purgatory. 

When Dante issued from the deadly shades of Hell, his 
cheeks all stained with tears, his eyes and heart heavy with 
woe, his whole frame spent with weariness and agony, the 
sweet blue heavens stretched above him, and his eyes, that 
for so long had gazed on nought but horror, rested in their 
peaceful depths ; Venus, the morning star, brightened the 
east, and the Southern Cross poured its splendour over the 
heavens ; daybreak was at hand, and the poets were at the 
foot of the mount of Purgatory. 

The melting hoar frost, when the sun rose, served to 

1 PurgatoriOj xxvi. 13-15, 81 ; xxvii. 49-51. 

2 Purgatorio, xii. 112, 113. 


bathe away the stains and tears of Hell from Dante's cheeks. 
The sea rippled against the naountain ; and reeds, the em- 
blems of humility, ev^er yielding to the wave that swept 
them, clustered round the shore. 

Ere long the waves were skimmed by a light bark, a 
radiant angel standing in the prow, bearing the souls of the 
redeemed, who must yet be purified, singing the psalm, 
*' When Israel came out of Egypt." Amongst the shades thus 
borne to the mount of purification was Dante's friend Casella, 
the singer and musician. How often had his voice lulled all 
Dante's cares to sleep, and "quieted all his desires," and now it 
seemed as though he were come to bring his troubled heart to 
peace, to rest him in his utter weariness of body and of souL 

So, at his entreaty, Casella raised his voice, and all the 
shades gathered entranced around him as he sang a noble 
canzone composed by Dante himself in years gono by.^ The 
sweet sound never ceased to echo in the poet's memory — not 
even the ineffable harmonies of Paradise drowned those first 
strains of peace that soothed him after his awful toil. ( 

But Purgatory is no place of rest, and Casella's song was 
rudely interrupted by the guardian of the place, who cried 
aloud, " How now, ye sluggard souls ! What negligence and 
«vhat delay is here ? Speed to the mountain 1 Rid you of 
the crust that lets not God be manifest to you ! " To purge 
our sins away is not to rest ; and no longing for repose 
must tempt us to delay even for a moment. ^ 

1 Canzone xv. " Amor, che nella mente." See also GonvitOy trat. iii. 

2 Purgatorio, i, 


Dante draws no flattering picture of the ease of purifi- 
cation; Hell itself hardly gives us such a sense of utter 
weariness as the first ascent of the mount of Purgatory. 
Virgil is on in front, and Dante cries out, altogether spent, 
** 0, my sweet father, turn thee and behold how I am left 
alone unless thou stay " ; but Virgil urges him on, and aftet 
a time comforts him with the assurance that though the 
mountain is so hard to scale at first, yet the higher a man 
climbs the easier the ascent becomes, till at last it is so sweet 
and easy to him that he rises without effort as a boat drops 
down the stream : then he may know that the end of his 
long journey has come, that the weight of sin is cast oflf, 
that his soul obeys its own pure nature, and rises 
unencumbered to its God.' 

The lower portion of the mountain forms a kind of 
ante-Purgatory, where the souls in weary exiie wait for 
admission to the purifying pain for which they long. Here 
those who have delayed their penitence till the end of life 
atone for their wilful alienation by an equal term of forced 
delay ere they may enter the blessed suffering of Purgatory. 
Here those who have died in contumacy against the Church 
expiate their offences by a thirty-fold exile in the ante- 
Purgatory ; but as we saw in Hell that Papal absolution will 
not shield the sinful soul, so we find in Purgatory that the 
Papal malediction, the thunders of excommunication itself, 
cannot permanently part the repentant soul from the 
forgiving God.^ 

1 Purgatorio, iv. 37-95. 2 ihid. iii. 112-145, iv. 127-135. 


When this first exile ia at an end, and the lower mountain 
scaled, the gate of the true Purgatory is reached. Three 
steps lead up to it, " the first of marble white, so polished 
and so smooth that in it man beholds him as he is." This 
represents that transparent simplicity and sincerity oi 
purpose that, throwing off all self-delusion, sees itself as it ia 
and is the first step towards true penitence. '* The second 
step, darker than purpled black, of rough and calcined stone, 
all rent through length and breadth," represents the contrite 
heart of true affliction for past sin. " The third and 
crowning mass methought was porphyry, and flamed like the 
red blood fresh spouting from the vein." This is the glowing 
love which crowns the work of penitence, and gives the 
earnest of a new and purer life. Above these steps an ange^ 
stands to whom Peter gave the keys — the silver key of 
knowledge and the golden key of authority — bidding him 
open to the penitent, and err rather towards freedom than 
towards over- sternness. ^ 

Within the gate of Purgatory rise the seven terraces 
where sin is purged. On the three lower ledges man atones 
for that perverse and ill-directed love which seeks another's 
ill — for love of some sort is the one sole motive of all action, 
good or bad. ^ In the lowest circle the pride that rejoices in 
its own superiority, and therefore in the inferiority of others, 
is purged and expiated. "As to support a ceiling or a roof," 

1 Purgatorioy ix. 76-129. 

2 For the general gcheme of Purgatory, see Purgatorio, xvii. 



says Dante, "one sees a figure bracket-wise with knees bent 
up against its bosom, till the imaged strain begets real misery 
in him who sees, so I beheld those shades when close I 
scanned them. True it is that less or greater burdens 
cramped each one or less or more, yet he whose mien had 
most of patience, wailing seemed to say, ' I can no more ! ' " ^ 

In the second circle the blind sin of envy is expiated. 
Here the eyelids of the envious are ruthlessly pierced and 
closed by the stitch of an iron wire and through the horrid 
fiuture gush forth tears of penitence that bathe the sinner's 
cheeks. " Here shall my eyes be closed," says Dante, half in 
shame at seeing those who saw him not, " here shall my eyes 
be closed, though open now — but not for long. Far more I 
dread the pain of those below ; for even now methinks 
I bend beneath the load." ^ 

In the third circle the passionate wend their way through 
a blinding, stinging smoke, darker than Hell ; but all are 
one in heart and join in sweet accord of strain and measure 
singing the " Agnus Dei." 

In these three lower circles is expiated the perverse love 
that, in pride, in envy, or in passion, seeks another's ill. 

Round the fourth or central ledge hurry in ceaseless flight 
the laggards whose feeble love of God, though not perverse, 
iv^as yet inadequate. 

Then on the succeeding circles are punished those whose 
sin was excessive, and ill-regulated love of earthly things. 

1 Purgatorio x. 130-139. 

2 Ibid. xiii. 73, 74, 133-138, 


There in the fifth round the avaricious and the prodigal, 
who alike bent their thoughts to the gross things of earth 
and lost all power of good, lie with their faces in the dust 
and their backs turned to heaven, pinioned and helpless. 

In the sixth circle the gluttonous in lean and ghastly 
hunger gaze from hollow eyes " like rings without the gems," 
upon the fruit they may not taste. •^ 

And lastly in the seventh circle the sin of unchastity is 
purged, in flames as fierce as its own reckless passion. 

Through all of these circles to which its life on earth 
has rendered it liable, the soul must pass, in pain but not in 
misery; at perfect peace with God, loving the pain that 
makes it fit to rise into His presence, longing for that more 
perfect union, but not desiring it as yet because still 
knowing itself unworthy. 

At last the moment comes when this shrinking from 
God's presence, this clinging to the pain of Purgatory, has its 
end. The desire to rise up surprises the repentant soul, and 
that desire is itself the proof that the punishment is over, 
that the soul is ripe for Heaven. Then, as it ascends, the 
whole mountain shakes from base to summit with the mighty 
cry of " Gloria in excelsis ! " raised by every soul in Purgatory 
as the ransomed and emancipated spirit seeks its home. ^ 

Through all these circles Dante is led by Virgil, and here as 
in Hell he meets and converses with spirits of the departed. He 
displays the same unrivalled power and the same relentless 

* PurgatoriOy xxiii. 31. 

2 Furgatorio, xx. 124-151, xxi. 34-78. 


use of t, tne same passionate indignation, the same yearning 
pity, which take the soul captive in the earlier poem. In 
the description of Oorso Donati's charger dragging his 
mangled body towards the gorge of Hell in ever fiercer 
flight ; in the indignant protest against the factious spirit of 
Italy and the passionate appeal to the Empire ; in the 
description of the impotent rage of the fiend who is cheated 
of the soul of Buonconte by " one sorry tear"; in the scathing 
denunciations of the cities of the Arno ; ^ in these and in 
many another passage the poet of the Purgatory shows that 
he is still the poet of the Hell ; but it is rather to the 
richness of the new thoughts and feelings than to the 
unabated vigour and passion of the old ones, that we 
naturally direct our attention in speaking of the Purgatory. 
And these we have by no means exhausted. 

When Dante first entered the gate of Purgatory he heard 
** voices mingled with sweet strains " chanting the Te Deum, 
and they raised in his heart such images as when we hear 
voices singing to the organ and " partly catch and partly miss 
the words." 2 And this sweet music, only to find its fullest 
and distinctest utterance in the Paradise, pervades almost 
the whole of the Purgatory, filling it with a reposeful longing 
that prepares for the fruition it does not give. 

There is a tender and touching simplicity in the records 
of their earthly lives which the gentle souls in Purgatory give 
to our poet. Take as an example the story of Pope Adrian V., 

1 Purgatorio, xxiv. 82-87, vi. 76-151, T. 85-129,, xiv. 16-72, 
Ibid. ix. 139-145. 


whom Dante finds amongst the avaricious : " A month and 
little more I felt the weight with which the Papal mantle 
presses on his shoulders who would keep it from the mire. 
All other burdens seem like feathers to it. Ah me ! but late 
was my conversion ; yet when I became Rome's Shepherd 
then I saw the hollow cozenage of life ; for my heart found 
no repose in that high dignity, and yonder life on earth gave 
it no room to aim yet higher: wherefore the love of this life 
rose within me. Till then was I a wretched soul severed 
from God, enslaved to avarice, for which thou seest I now 
bear the pain." ^ 

Most touching too are the entreaties of the souls in 
Purgatory for the prayers of those on earth, or their 
confession that they have already been lifted up by them. 
*' Tell my Giovanna to cry for me where the innocent are 
heard, "says Nino to Dante;- and when the poet meets his friend 
Forese, who had been dead but five years, in the highest 
circle but one of Purgatory, whereas he would have expected 
him still to be in exile at the mountain's base, he asks him 
to explain the reason why he is there, and Forese answers, 
"It is my Nella's broken sobs that have brought me so soon 
to drink the sweet wormwood of torment. Her devout 
prayers and sighs have drawn me from the place of lingering, 
and freed me from the lower circles. My little widow, whom 
I greatly loved, is all the dearer and more pleasing to God 
because her goodness stands alone amid surrounding vice." ^ 

^PurgatoriOi xix. 103-114. 

^PurgatoriOy viii. 71, 72. ^Ibid. xxiii. 85-93. 


Surely it is a deep and holy truth, under whatever 
varying forms succeeding ages may embody it, that the 
faithful love of a pure soul does more than any other earthly 
power to hasten the passage of the penitent through Purga- 
tory. When under the load of self-reproach and shame that 
weighs down our souls, we dare not look up to Heaven, dare 
not look into our own hearts, dare not meet God, then the 
faithful love of a pure soul can raise us up and teach us not 
to despair of ourselves, can lift us on the wings of its prayer, 
can waft us on the breath of its sobs, swiftly through the 
purifying anguish into the blissful presence of God. 

A feature of special beauty in the Purgatory is formed by 
the allegorical or typical sculptures on the wall and floor of 
one of the terraces, by the voices of warning or encourage- 
ment that sweep round the mountain, and by the visions 
that from time to time visit the poet himself. Let one of 
these visions suffice. Dante is about to enter the circles in 
which the inordinate love of earthly things, with all vain and 
vicious indulgence, is punished. "In dream there came to 
me," he says, " a woman with a stuttering tongue, and with 
distorted eyes, all twisted on her feet, maimed in her hands, 
and sallow in her hue. I gazed at her, and as the sun 
comforts the chilled limbs by the night oppressed, so did my 
look give ease unto her speech, and straightway righted her 
in every limb, and with love's colours touched her haggard 
face. And when her speech was liberated thus, she sang so 
sweetly that 'twere dire pain to wrest attention from her. 


• I,' she sang, ' am that sweet siren who led astray the 
sailors in mid-sea, so full am I of sweetness to the ear. 'Twas 
I that drew Ulysses from his way with longing for my song ! 
and he on whom the custom of my voice has grown, full 
rarely leaves me, so do I content him.' " In the end this 
false siren is exposed in all her foulness, and Dante turns 
from her in loathing.^ 

Throughout Purgatory Dante is still led and instructed 
by Virgil. I think there is nothing in the whole Comedy so 
pathetic as the passages in which the fate of Virgil, to be 
cut off for ever from the light of God, is contrasted with the 
hope of the souls in Purgatory. The sweetness and beauty 
of Virgil's character as conceived by Dante grow steadily 
upon ua throughout this poem, until they make the con- 
templation of his fate and the patient] sadness with which 
he speaks of it more heartrending than anything that we 
have heard or seen in Hell. After this we hardly need to 
hear from Dante the direct expression he subsequently gives 
of his passionate thirst to know the meaning of so mysterious 
a decree as that which barred Heaven against the unbaptised. 

In Purgatory, Virgil and Dante meet the emancipated 
soul of the Koraan poet Statins, freed at last after manj 
centuries of purifying pain, and ready now to ascend to 
Heaven. Virgil asks him how he became a Christian, an(f 
Statins refers him to his own words in one of the Eclogues, 
regarded in those days as containing a prophecy of Christ. 
**Thou," says Statius, "didst first guide me to Parnassus to 
* PvrgatoriOi xix. 7-33. 


drink in its grottoes, and afterward thou first didst light ine 
unto God. When thou didst sing, * The season is renewed, 
justice returns, and the first age of man, and a new progeny 
descends from Heaven,' thou wast as one who, marching 
through the darkness of the night, carries the light behind 
him, aiding not himself, but teaching those who follow him 
the way. Through thee was I a poet, and through thee a 
Christian." Not a shade of envy, not a thought of resent- 
ment or rebellion, passes over Virgil's heart as he hears 
that while saving others he could not save himself. ^ 

But now without dwelling further on the episodes of the 
poem, we must hasten to consider the most beautiful and 
profoundest of its closing scenes. 

Under Virgil's guidance Dante had traversed all the 
successive circles of the mount of Pnrgatory. He stood at 
its summit, in the earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden 
which Eve had lost. There amid fairest sights and sounds 
he was to meet the glorified Beatrice, and she was to be his 
guide in Heaven as Virgil had been his guide in Hell and 

In any degree to understand what follows we must try to 
realise the intimate blending of lofty abstract conceptions 
and passionate personal emotions and reminiscences in 
Dante's thoughts of Beatrice. 

This sweet and gentle type of womanhood, round whose 
earthly life the genius and devotion of Dante have twined a 
wreath of the tenderest poetry, the most romantic love that 
1 PurgatoriOf xxii. 55-73u 


ever rose from the heart of man, had been to him in life and 
death the vehicle and messenger of God's highest grace. 
Round her memory clustered all the noblest purposes and 
purest motives of his life, and in her spirit seemed to be 
reflected the divenest truth, the loftiest wisdom, that the 
human soul could comprehend. And so, making her 
objectively and in the scheme of the universe what she had 
really been and was to him subjectively, he came to regard 
her as the symbol of Divine philosophy as Virgil was the 
symbol of human virtue and wisdom. 

Touched by the glow of an ideal love, Dante had reached 
a deeper knowledge, a fuller grace, than the wisdon; of this 
world could teach or gain. The doctors of the Church, the 
sweet singers, the mighty heroes, the profound philosophers, 
who had instructed and supported him, had none of them 
touched his life so deeply, had none of them led him so far 
into the secret place of truth, had none of them brought 
him so near to God, as that sweet child, that lovely maid, 
that pure woman, who had given him his first and noblest 

Now to Dante and to his age it was far from unnatural to 
erect concrete human beings into abstract types or 
personifications. Leah and Rachel are the active and the 
contemplative life respectively. Virgil, we have seen, is 
human philosophy. Cato of Utica represents the triumph 
over the carnal nature and the passions. Why should the 
Old Testament and classical antiquity alone furnish these 
types ] Why should not Beatrice become the personification 


of that heavenly wisdom, that true knowledge of God, of 
which she had been the vehicle to Dante ? 

But to the poet and to the age in which he lived it was 
impossible to separate this heavenly wisdom in its simple, 
spiritual essence, from the form which its exposition had 
received at the hands of the great teachers of the Church. 
To them true spiritual wisdom, personal experience and 
knowledge of God, were inseparable from theology. The twQ 
united in the conception of Divine philosophy. Thus by a 
strange but intelligible gradation Dante blended in his 
conception of Beatrice two elements which seem to us the very 
extreme of incompatibility. She is in the first place the per- 
sonification of scholastic theology, with all its subtle intricacy 
of pedantic method ; she is in the second place the maiden 
to whom Dante sang his songs of love in Florence, and whose 
early death he wept disconsolate. And in the closing scenes 
of the Purgatory these two conceptions are more intimately 
blended, perhaps, than anywhere else in Dante's writings. 

After wandering, as it were, in the forest of a bewildered 
life, the poet is led through Hell and Purgatory until he 
stands face to face at last with his own purest and loftiest 
ideal; and the fierceness of his own self-accusation when 
thus confronted with Beatrice he expresses under the form of 
reproaches which he lays upon her lips, but which we must 
retranslate into the reproachful utterances of his own tortured 
heart, if we are to retain our gentle thoughts of Beatrice. 

We need not dwell even for a moment on the gorgeous 
pageantry with which Dante introduces and surrounds 


Beatrice. Suffice it to say that she comes in a mystic car, which 
represents the Church, surrounded by saints and angels. 

No sooner does Dante see her, although closely veiled, 
than the might of the old passion sweeps iipon him, and like 
a child that flees in terror to its mother, so does he turn to 
Virgil with the cry : " Not one drop of blood but trembles 
in my veins ! I recognise the tokens of the ancient flame." 
But Virgil is gone. Dante has no refuge from his own 
ofiended and reproachful ideal. As he bursts into lamentations 
at the loss of Virgil's companionship, Beatrice sternly calls 
him back : " Dante ! weep not that Virgil has gone from thee. 
Thou hast a deeper wound for which to weep." 

As one who speaks, but holds back words more burning 
than he utters, so she stood. A clear stream flowed between 
her and Dante, and as she began to renew her reproaches he 
cast down his eyes in shame upon the water ; — but there he 
saw himself ! The angels sang a plaintive psalm, and Dante 
knew that they were pleading for him more clearly than if 
they had used directer words. Then the agony of shame and 
penitence that Beatrice's reproof had frozen in his bosom, as 
when the icy north wind freezes the snow amid the forests 
of the Apennine, was melted by the angel's plea for him as 
snow by the breezes of the south, and burst from him in a 
convulsion of sobs and tears. 

How was it possible that he should have gone so far 
astray, have been so false to the promise and the purpose of 
his early life, have abused his own natural gifts and the 
superadded grace of heaven ? How was it possible that he 


should have let all the richness of his life run wild 1 That 
after Beatrice had for a time sustained him and led him in 
the true path with ber sweet eyes, he should have turned 
away from her in Heaven whom he had so loved on earth % 
How could he have followed the false semblances of good 
that never hold their word % His visions and his dreams of 
the ideal he was deserting had not sufficed, and so deep had 
he sunk, that nothing short of visiting the region of the 
damned could save him from perdition. Why had he 
deserted his first purposes ? What obstacle had baffled or 
appalled him? What new charm had those lower things of 
earth obtained to draw him to them? "The false enticements 
of the present things," he sobbed, "had led his feet aside, 
soon as her countenance was hid." But should not the decay 
of that fair form have been itself the means of weaning him 
from things of earth, that he might ne'er again be cheated 
by their beauty or drawn aside by them from the pursuit 
of heavenly wisdom and of heavenly love % When the fairest 
of all earthly things was mouldering in the dust, should he 
not have freed himself from the entanglements of the less 
beauteous things remaining % 

To all these reproaches, urged by Beatrice, Dante had no 
reply. With eyes rooted to the ground, filled with 
unutterable shame, like a child repentant and confessing, 
longing to throw himself at his mother's feet, but afraid to 
meet her glance while her lips still utter the reproof, so 
Dante stood. From time to time a few broken words, which 
needed the eye more than the ear to interpret them, dropped 


from his lips like shafts from a bow that breaks with excess 
of strain as the arrow is discharged. 

At last Beatrice commanded him to look up. The wind 
uproots the oak tree with less resistance than Dante felt ere 
he could turn his downcast face to hers \ but when he saw 
her, transcending her former self more than her former sell 
transcended others, his agony of self-reproach and penitence 
was more than he could bear, and he fell senseless to the 
ground. ^ 

When he awoke he was already plunged in the waters of 
Lethe, which with the companion stream of Euno6 would 
wash from his memory the shame and misery of past 
unfaithfulness, would enable him, no longer crushed by self- 
reproach, to ascend with the divine wisdom and purity of 
his own ideal into the higher realms. 

And here the Purgatory ends, the Paradise begins. 
i PurgatoriOi xxx. 22 — xxxi. 90. 



When Dante wrote the Paradise, he well knew that he was 

engaged in the supreme effort of his life, to which all else 

had led up. He well knew that he was engaged in no 

pastime, but with intense concentration of mature power 

was delivering such a message from God to man as few 

indeed had ever been privileged or burdened to receive. He 

well knew that the words in which through years of toil he 

had distilled the sweetness and the might of his vision were 

immortal, that to latest ages they would bear strength and 

purity of life, would teach the keen eye of the spirit to gaze 

into the uncreated light, and would flood the soul with a joy 

deeper than all unrest or sorrow, with a glory that no gloom 

could ever dispel He knew moreover that this his last and 

greatest poem would speak to a few only in any generation, 

though speaking to those few with a voice of transforming 

power and grace. 

" 0, ye," he cries almost at the beginning of the Paradise, 

** who, desirous to hear, have followed in light bark behind 

my keel, which sings upon its course, now turn you back and 

make for your own shores, trust not the open wave lest, 

losing me, ye should be left bewildered. As yet all untracked 

is the wave I sail. Minerva breathes, Apollo leads me on, 

and the nine Muses point me to the pole. Ye other few, 

89 G 


who timely have lift up your heads for bread of angels, fed 
by which man liveth but can never surfeit know, well may 
ye launch upon the ocean deep, keeping my furrow as ye out 
your way through waters that return and equal lie."^ 

In these last words, comparing the track he leaves to the 
watery furrow that at once subsides, Dante seems to indicate 
that he was well aware how easily the soul might drop out 
of his verses, how the things he had to say were essentially 
unutterable, so that his words could at best only be a 
suggestion of his meaning dependent for their efifect upon 
the subtlest spiritual influences and adjustments, as well as 
upon the receptive sympathy of those to whom they were 
addressed. And if there are so many that fail to catch the 
spirit and feel the heavenly harmony of the music when it 
is Dante's own hand that touches the strings, how hopeless 
seems the task of transferring even its echo, by translated 
extracts, or descriptions, from which the soul has fled. 

There is indeed much that is beautiful, much that is 
profound, in the Paradise, which is capable of easy repro- 
duction, but the divine aroma of the whole could only be 
translated or transferred by another Dante. Petal after 
petal of the rose of Paradise may be described or copied, 
but the heavenly perfume that they breathe is gone. 

'*His glory that moves all things," so Dante begins the 

Paradise, " pierces the universe ; and is here more, here less 

resplendent. In that Heaven which of His light has most, 

was I. There I saw things which he who thence descends 

* Paradiso, ii. 1-15. 


has not the knowledge or power to retell. For as it draws 
anigh to its desire, our intellect pierces so deep that 
memory cannot follow in its track. But of that sacred 
empire so much as I had power in my mind to store, shall 
now be matter of my poesy." ^ 

And again, almost at the close he sings, "As he who 
dreams, and when the dream is broke still feels the emotion 
stamped upon his heart though all he saw is fled beyond 
recall, e'en such am I ; for, all the vision gone well-nigh 
without a trace, yet does the sweetness that was born of it 
still drop within my heart." ^ 

If so much as an echo of that echo, if so much as a 
dream of that dream, falls upon our ears and sinks into our 
hearts, then we are amongst those few for whom Dante 
wrote his last and his divinest poem. 

Through the successive heavens of Paradise Dante is 
conducted by Beatrice j and here again the intimate blending 
in the divine guide of two distinct almost contradictory 
conceptions forms one of the great obstacles toward giving 
an intelligible account of the poem. This obstacle can only 
disappear when patient study guided by receptive sympathy 
has led us truly into the poet's thought. 

In the Paradise, however, the allegorical and abstract 
element in the conception of Beatrice is generally the ruling 
one. She is the impersonation of Divine Philosophy, under 

' ParadisOj i. 1-12. 
« Ibid, xxxiii. 58-63. 

92 HE A VEN 

whose guidance the spiritual discernment is so quickened 
and the moral perceptions so purified, that the intellect 
can thread its way through subtlest intricacies of casuistry 
and theology, and where the intellect fails the eye of faith 
still sees. 

Even in this allegorical character Beatrice is a veritable 
personality, as are Lucia, the Divine Grace, and other 
attributes or agents of the Deity, who appear in the Comedy 
as personal beings with personal affections and feelings, 
though at the same time representing abstract ideas. Thus 
Beatrice, as Divine Philosophy impersonated, is at once an 
abstraction and a personality. " The eyes of Philosophy," 
says Dante elsewhere, "are her demonstrations, the smile 
of Philosophy her persuasions.'"; And this mystic signi- 
ficance must never be lost sight of when we read of Beatrice's 
eyes kindling with an ever brighter glow and her smile 
beaming through them with a diviner sweetness as she 
ascends through heaven after heaven ever nearer to the 
presence of God. The demonstrations of Divine Philosophy 
become more piercing, more joyous, more triumphant, her 
persuasions more soul-subduing and entrancing, as the 
spirit draws nearer to its source. 

But though we shall never understand the Paradise unless 
we perceive the allegorical significance and appropriateness 
not only of the general conception of Beatrice, but also 
of many details in Dante's descriptions of her, yet we should 
be equally far rom the truth if we imagined her a mere 
1 ConvitOf III. XV. 


allegory. She is a glorified and as it were divine 'personality^ 
and watches over and guides her pupil with the tenderness 
and love of a gentle and patient mother. The poet constantly 
likens himself to a wayward, a delirious, or a frightened 
child, as he flies for refuge to his blessed guide's maternal 
care. ^ 

Again, they are in the eighth heaven, and Beatrice knows 
that a manifestation of saints and angels is soon to be 
vouchsafed to Dante. Listen to his description of her as she 
stands waiting ; " E'en as a bird amongst the leaves she loves, 
brooding upon the nest of her sweet young throughout the 
night wherein all things are hid, foreruns the time to see 
their loved aspect and find them food, wherein her heavy toil 
is sweet to her, there on the open spray, waiting with 
yearning longing for the sun, fixedly gazing till the morn 
shall rise ; so did she stand erect, her eyes intent upon the 
region of the solstice. And seeing her suspended in such 
longing I became as one who yearns for what he knows 
not, and who rests in hope."'^ 

Under Beatrice's guidance, then, Dante ascends through 
the nine heavens into the empyrean heights of Paradise. 
Here in reality are the souls of all the blessed, rejoicing in 
the immediate presence and light of God,^ and here Dante 
sees them in the glorified forms which they will wear after 

1 PurgatoriOy xxx. 79-81, xxxi. 64-67 ; Paradiso, i. 100-102, 
xxii. 1 sqq. 

2 Paradiso, xxiii. 1-15. » Ibid. iv. 28-48. 


the resurrection. But in order to bring home to his human 
understanding the varied grades of merit and beatitude in 
Paradise, he meets or appears to meet the souls of the 
departed in the successive heavens through which he passes, 
sweeping with the spheres in wider and ever wider arc, ai 
he rises towards the eternal rest by which all other things 
are moved. 

It is in these successive heavens that Dante converses 
with the souls of the blessed. In the lower spheres they 
appear to him in a kind of faint bodily form like the 
reflections cast by glass unsilvered ; but in the higher spheres 
they are like gems of glowing light, like stars that blaze into 
sight or fade away in the depths of the sky; and these 
living topaz and ruby lights, like the morning stars that sing 
together in Job, break into strains of ineffable praise and joy 
as they glow upon their way in rhythmic measure both of 
voice and movement. 

Thus in the fourth Heaven, the Heaven of the Sun, 
Dante meets the souls of the great doctors of the Church. 
Thomas Aquinas is there, and Albertus Magnus and the 
Venerable Bede and many more. A circle of these glorious 
lights is shining round Dante and Beatrice as Aquinas tells 
the poet who they were on earth. " Then like the horologue, 
that summons us, what hour the spouse of God rises to sing 
her matins to her spouse, to win his love, wherein each part 
urges and draws its fellow, making a tinkling sound of so 
sweet note that the well-ordered spirit swells with love ; so 
did I see the glorious wheel revolve, and render voice to 



voice in melody and sweetness such as ne'er could noted bo 
save where rejoicing is eternalised. 

" Oh, senseless care of mortals ! Ah, how false the 
thoughts that urge thee in thy downward flight ! One was 
pursuing law, and medicine one, one hunting after priesthood, 
and a fourth would rule by force or fraud j one toiled in 
robbery, and one in civil business, and a third was moiling 
in the pleasures of the flesh all surfeit-weary, and a fourth 
surrendered him to sloth. And I the while, released from 
all these things, thus gloriously with Beatrice was received 
in heaven. "1 

When Beatrice fixes her eyes — remember their allegorical 
significance as the demonstrations of Divine philosophy — 
upon the light of God, and Dante gazes upon them, then 
quick as thought and without sense of motion, the two arise 
into a higher heaven, like the arrow that finds its mark while 
yet the bow string trembles; and Dante knows by the 
kindling beauty that glows in his guardian's eyes that they 
are nearer to the presence of God and are sweeping Heaven 
in a wider arc. 

The spirits in the higher heavens see God with clearer 
vision, and therefore love Him with more burning love, and 
rejoice with a fuller joy in His presence than those in the 
lower spheres. Yet these too rest in perfect peace and 
oneness with God's will. 

In the Heaven of the Moon, for instance, the lowest of 
all, Daute meets Piccarda. She was the sister of Forese, 
1 Paradiso, x. 139— xi. 12. 

96 HE A VEN 

whom we saw in the highest circle but one of Purgatory, 
raised so far by his widowed Nella's prayers. When Dante 
recognises her amongat her companions, in her transfigured 
beauty, he says, " ' But tell me, ye whose blessedness is here, 
do ye desire a more lofty place, to see more and to be more 
loved by God ? ' She with those other shades first gently 
smiled, then answered me so joyous that she seemed to glow 
with love's first flame, * Brother, the power of love so lulls 
our will, it makes us long for nought but what we have, and 
feel no other thirst. If we should wish to be exalted more, 
our wish would be discordant with His will who here 
assigned us ; and that may not be within these spheres, as 
thou thyself mayst see, knowing that here we needs must 
dwell in love, and thinking what love is. Nay, 'tis inherent 
in this blessedness to hold ourselves within the will Divine, 
whereby our wills are one. That we should be thus rank by 
rank throughout this realm ordained, rejoices all the realm 
e'en as its King, who draws our wills in His. And His 
decree is our peace. It is that sea to which all things are 
moved which it creates and all that nature forges.' Then 
was it clear to me how everywhere in Heaven is Paradise, 
e'en though the grace distil not in one mode from that Chief 

So again in the second heaven, the Heaven of Mercury, 

the soul of Justinian tells the poet how that sphere is assigned 

to them whose lofty aims on earth were in some measure fed 

by love of fame and glory rather than inspired by the true 

1 Paradiso, iii. 64-90. 


love of God. Hence they are in this lower sphere. Yet 
part of their very joy consists in measuring the exact accord 
between the merits and the blessedness of the beatified. 
"As diverse voices make sweet melody," he continues, "so do 
the diverse ranks of our life render sweet harmony amidst 
these spheres." ^ 

Indeed, one of the marvels of this marvellous poem is 
the extreme variety of character and even of incident which 
we find in Heaven as well as in Hell and Purgatory. In 
each of the three poems there is one key-note to which we 
are ever brought back, but in each there is infinite variety 
and delicacy of individual delineation too. The saints are 
no more uniform and characterless in their blessedness than 
are the unrepentant sinners in their tortures or the repentant 
in their contented pain. 

Nor must we suppose that the Paradise is aia unbroken 
succession of descriptions of heavenly bliss. Here, too, as 
in Hell and Purgatory, the things of earth are from time 
to time discussed by Dante and the spirits that he meets. 
Here too the glow of a lofty indignation flushes the very 
spheres of Heaven. Thus Peter cries against Pope Boniface 
VIII. : " He who usurps upon the earth my place, my 'place. 
MY PLACE, which in the presence of the Son of God is vacant 
now, has made the city of my sepulture a sink of blood and 
filth, at which the rebel Satan, who erst fell from Heaven 
rejoices down in Hell." And at this the whole Heaven glows 
with red, and Beatrice's cheek flushes as at a tale of shame. ^ 
1 ParadisOf vi. 112-126, « Paradiso, xxvii. 22-34, 


Dante is still the same. The sluggish self-indulgence of 
the monks, the reckless and selfish ambition of the factious 
nobles and rulers, the venial infamy of the Court of Rome 
cannot be banished from his mind even by the beatific 
visions of Heaven. Nay, the very contrast gives a depth of 
indignant sadness to the denunciations of the Paradise which 
makes them almost more terrible than those of Hell itselt 
Interwoven too with the descriptions of the bliss o! 
Heaven, is the discussion of so wide a range of moral and 
theological topics that the Paradise has been described aa 
having "summed up, as it were, and embodied for perpetuity 
, , . the quintessence, the living substance, the ultimate 
conclusions of the scholastic theology ; " ^ and it may well be 
true that to master the last cantica of the ^'Divine Comedy" 
is to pierce more deeply into the heart of mediaeval religion 
and theology than any of the schoolmen and doctors of the 
Church can take us. At the touch of Dante's staff, the 
flintiest rock of metaphysical dogma yields the water of life, 
and in his hands the subtlest discussion of casuistry becomes 
a lamp to our feet. 

And beyond all this, such is the marvellous concentratioc 
of Dante's poetry, there is room in the Paradise for long 
digressions, biographical, antiquarian, and personal ; whilst 
all these parts, apparently so heterogeneous, are welded into 
perfect symmetry in this one poem. 

Amongst the most important of the episodes is the account 
of ancient Florence given to Dante by his ancestor Cacciaguida, 

1 Milmaq, 

MARS 99 

who also predicts the poet's exile and wanderings, and 
in a strain of lofty enthusiasm urges him to pour out all the 
heart of his vision and brave the hatred and the persecution 
that it will surely bring upon him. 

This Cacciaguida was a Crusader who fell in the Holy 
Wars, and Dante meets him in the burning planet of Mars, 
amongst the mighty warriors of the Lord whose souls 
blaze there in a ruddy glow of glory. There is Joshua, 
there Judas Maccabseus, and Charlemagne and Orlando 
and Godfrey and many more. 

A red cross glows athwart the planet's orb, and from 
it beams in mystic guise the Christ; but how, the poet 
cannot say, for words and images are wanting to portray 
it. Yet he who takes his cross and follows Christ, will 
one day forgive the tongue that failed to tell what he shall 
see when to him also Christ shall flash through that glowing 
dawn of light. 

Here the souls, like rubies that glow red upon the 
gleaming cross as stars shine forth out of the Milky Way, 
pass and repass from horn to horn, from base to summit, 
and burst into a brighter radiance as they join and cross, 
while strains of lofty and victorious praise, unknown to 
mortal ears, gather upon the cross as though it were a 
harp of many strings, touched by the hand of God, and 
take captive the entranced, adoring soul. 

There Cacciaguida hailed his descendant Dante, and long 
they conversed of the past, the present, and the future. Alas 
for our poor pride of birth 1 What wonder if men glory in it 

loo HE A VEN 

here ^ For even there in heaven, where no base appetite 
distorts the will and judgment, even there did Dante glow 
with pride to call this man his ancestor. 

At last their converse ended ; Cacciaguida's soul again 
was sweeping the unseen strings of that heavenly harp, and 
Dante turned again to look for guidance from his guardian. 
Beatrice's eyes were fixed above; and quick as the blush 
passes from a fair cheek, so quick the ruddy glow of Mars 
was gone, and the white light of Jupiter shone clear and 
calm in the sixth Heaven — the Heaven of the Just. 

What a storm of passions and emotions swept through 
Dante's soul when he learnt where he was ! "0 chivalry of 
Heaven ! " he afterwards exclaims, " pray for those who are 
led all astray on earth by foul example." When would the 
Righteous One again be wroth, and purge His temple of 
the traffickers — His temple walled by miracles and martyr- 
doms % How long should the Pope be suffered to degrade 
his holy office by making the penalties of Church discipline 
the tools of selfish politics — how long should his devotion to 
St. John the Baptist, whose head was stamped upon the 
coins of Florence, make him neglect the fisherman and Paul ? 

Such are the thoughts that rise in Dante's mind when he 
thinks of the Heaven of the Just ; but in that Heaven itself 
another feeling masters him. Here surely, here if anywhere 
God's justice must be manifest, Reflected in all heaven, here 
must it shine without a veil. The spirits of the just could surely 
solve his torturing doubt. How long had his soul hungered 
and found no food on earth, and now how eagerly did he wait 


the answer to his doubt ! They knew hi£ doliVt,'heneed not 
tell it them ; oh, let them solve it ! " : ' " *;" •. V',' * 

Yes, they knew what he would say : '" A fnaii is" born up'oij 
the bank of Indus, and there is none to speak of Christ, 
or read or write of him. All this man's desires and acts are 
good, and without sin, as far as human eye can see, in deed 
or word. He dies unbaptised, without the faith. Where 
is that justice which condemns him % Where is his fault in 
not believing % " Yes, they knew his doubt, but could not 
solve it. Their answer is essentially the same as Paul's : 
" Nay, but man, who art thou that repliest against God % " 

The Word of God, say the spirits of the just, could not 
be so expressed in all the universe but what it still remained 
in infinite excess. Nay, Lucifer, the highest of created 
beings, could not at once see all the light of God, and 
fell through his impatience. How then could a poor mortal 
hope to scan the ways of God % His ken was lost in His 
deep justice as the eye is lost in the ocean. We can see the 
shallow bottom at the shore, but we cannot see the bottom of 
the deep, which none the less is there. So God's unfathom- 
able justice is too deep, too just, for us to comprehend. The 
Primal Will, all goodness in itself, moves not aside from 
justice and from good. Never indeed did man ascend to 
heaven who believed not in Christ, yet there are many who 
cry, Lord, Lord, and in the day of judgment shall be far 
more remote from Christ than many a one that knew him 

1 ParadisOy xiv. 85 — xix. 148. 


' With this raus'wer Dante must be content. He must 
r^.t^im from; Hpayen* *\?ith this thirst unslaked, this long 
hiihger' still uiisjatisfied. Ay, and with this answer must we 
too rest content. And yet not with this answer, for we do 
not ask this question. That awful load of doubt under which 
Dante bent is lifted from our souls, and for us there is 
no eternal Hell, no virtuous but rejected Heathen. Yet to 
us too the ocean of God's justice is too deep to pierce. And 
when we ask why every blessing, every chance of good 
is taken from one child, while another is bathed from infancy 
in the light of love, and is taught sooner than it can walk to 
choose the good, and to reject the evil, what answer can we 
have but Dante's % Rest in faith. You know God's justice, 
for you feel it with you in your heart when you are fighting 
for the cause of justice ; you know God's justice, for you feel 
it in your heart like an avenging angel when you sin ; you 
know God's justice, but you do not know it all. 

There in the Heaven of the Just was David; now he 
knew how precious were his songs, since his reward was such. 
There too was Trajan who by experience of the bliss of 
Heaven and pain of Hell knew how dear the cost of not 
obeying Christ. There were Constantino, and William of 
Sicily, and Ripheus, that just man of Troy. " What things 
are these ? " was the cry that dropped by its own weight from 
Dante's lips. The heathens Trajan and Ripheus here ! No, 
not heathens. Ripheus had so given himself to justice when 
on earth, 'that God in His grace revealed to him the coming 


Christ, and he believed. Faith, Hope, and Charity were his 
baptism more than a thousand years ere baptism was known. 
And for Trajan, Gregory had wrestled in prayer for him, had 
taken the kingdom of heaven by storm with his warm love 
und living hope ; and since no man repents in Hell, God at 
the prayer of Gregory had recalled the imperial soul back for 
a moment to its mouldering clay. There it believed in 
Christ, and once more dying entered on his joy.i 

Thus did Dante wrestle with his faith, and in the passion 
of his love of virtue and thrist for justice seek to escape the 
problem which he could not solve. 

But we must hasten to the close. Dante and Beatrice 
have passed through all the heavens. The poet's sight is 
gradually strengthened and prepared for the supreme vision. 
He has already seen a kind of symbol of the Uncreated, 
surrounded by the angelic ministers. It was in the ninth 
heaven, the Heaven of the Primum Mobile, that he saw 
a single point of intensest light surrounded by iris rings, 
upon which points, said Beatrice, all Heaven and all nature 

But now they have passed beyond all nine revolving 
heavens into the region of " pure light, light intellectual full 
of love, love of the true good full of joy, joy that transcends 
all sweetness." ^ And here the poet sees that for which alJ 
else had been mere preparation. 

^ParadisOj xx. ^Ibid. xxviii, 41, 42, 

3 Ibid. XXX. 40-42. 


But I will not strive to reproduce his imagery, with the 
mighty river of light inexhaustible, with the mystic flowers 
of heavenly perfume, with the sparks like rubies set in gold 
ever passing between the flowers and the river. Of this light 
Dante drank, and then the true forms of what had hitherto 
been shadowed forth in emblems only, rose before his eyes. 
Rank upon rank the petals of the mystic rose of Paradise 
stretched far away around and above him. There were the 
blessed souls of the holy ones, bathed in the light of God 
that streamed upon them from above, while the angels ever 
passed between it and them ministering peace and love. 

There high up, far, far beyond the reach of mortal 
eye, had it been on earth, sat Beatrice, who had left the 
poet's side. But in Heaven, with no destroying medium to 
intervene, distance is no let to perfect sight. He spoke to 
her. He poured out his gratitude to her, for it was she who 
had made him a free man from a slave, she who had made 
him sane, she who had left her footprints in Hell for him, 
when she went to summon Virgil to his aid. Oh, that his 
life hereafter might be worthy of the grace and power that 
had so worked for him ! Then from her distant place in 
Heaven, Beatrice looked at him and smiled, then turned her 
eyes upon the Uncreated Light. ^ 

St. Bernard was at Dante's side, and prayed that the 

seer's vision might be strengthened to look on God. Then 

Dante turned his eyes to the light above. The unutterable 

glory of that light dazzled not his intent love-guided gaze. 

^Paradiso, xxxi. 59-93. 


Nay, rather did it draw it to itself and every moment 
strengthen it with keener sight and feed it with intenser 

Deeper and deeper into that Divine Light the seer saw. 
Had he turned his eyes aside, then indeed he knew the 
piercing glory would have blinded them; but that could 
never be, for he who gazes on that light feels all desire 
centred there — in it are all things else. So for a time 
with kindling gaze the poet looked into the light of God, 
unchanging, yet to the strengthening sight revealing ever 
more. Mysteries that no human tongue can tell, no human 
mind conceive, were flashed upon him in the supreme 
moment, and then all was over — " The power of the lofty 
vision failed." 

Dante does not tell us where he found himself when the 
vision broke. He only tells us this : that as a wheel moves 
equally in all its parts, so his desire and will were, without 
strain or jar, revolved henceforth by that same Love that 
moves the sun and all the other stars. ^ 

This was the end of all that Dante had thought and felt 
and lived through — a will that rolled in perfect oneness 
with the will of God. This was the end to which he 
would bring his readers, this was the purpose of his sacred 
poem, this was the meaning of his life. ^ 

1 Pararftso, xxxiii. 143-145. 

2 Symonds. 





Dante's poem — the true reflection of his mind — is a compact and 
rounded whole in which all the parts are mutually interdependent. 
Its digressions are never excrescences, its episodes are never detached 
from its main purpose, its form is never arbitrary and accidental, but 
is always the systematic and deliberate expression of its substance. 
Moreover it is profoundly medijeval and Catholic in conception and 
spirit. The scholastic theology and science of the Middle Ages and 
the spiritual institutions of the Catholic Church were no trammels to 
Dante's thought and aspiration. Under them and amidst them ho 
moved with a perfect sense of freedom, in them he found the 
embodiment of his loftiest conceptions. Against their abuses his 
impetuous spirit poured out its lava-stream of burnhig indignation, 
but his very passion against those who laid impure hands upon the 
sacred things of God is the measure of his reverence for their sanctity. 

If the Catholic poet of the fourteenth century speaks with a voice 
that can reach the ears and stir the hearts of the Protestant and heretic 
of the nineteenth, it is not so much because he rose above the special 
forms and conditions of the faith of his own age as because he went 
below them and touched the eternal rock upon which they rested. 
Not by neglecting or making light of the dogmas and institutions of 
his day, but by piercing to their very heart and revealing their 
deepest foundations, he became a poet for all time. 

The distinction, then, which we are about to draw between the 
permanent realities of Dante's religion and the passing forms, the 
temporary conditions of belief, under which it was manifested, is a 



distinction which did not exist for him. His faith was a garment 
woven without seam, or, to use his own metaphor, a coin so true in 
weight and metal, so bright and round, that there was no " perhaps " 
to him in its impression.^ 

This unwavering certainty alike in principle and in detail, this 
unfaltering loyalty to the beliefs of his days alike in form and 
substance, is one of the secrets of Dante's strength. 

But, again, such compactness and cohesion of belief could not have 
been attained except by the strict subordination of every article of 
concrete faith to the great central conceptions of religion, rising out 
of the very nature and constitution of the devout human soul. And 
therefore, paradox as it may seem, the very intensity with which 
Bante embraced beliefs that we have definitely and utterly rejected, 
is the pledge that we shall find in his teaching the essence of our own 
religion ' and we may turn to the Comedy with the certainty that we 
shall not only discover here and there passages which will wake an 
echo in our bosoms, but shall also find at the very heart of it some 
guiding thought that will be to us as it was to him, absolutely true^ 

Now Dante himself, as we have seen, tells us what is the subject 
of his Cctmedy. Literally it is " The state of souls after death," and 
allegoric. ally "Man, as rendering himself liable to rewarding or 
punishing justice, by good or ill desert in the exercise of his free will," 
The ideal requirements of Divine Justice, then, form the central 
subject of this poem, the one theme to which amidst infinite diversity 
of application, the poet remains ever true ; and these requirements he 
works out in detail and enforces with all the might, the penetration, 
the sweetness of his song, under the conditions of mediaeval belief as 
to the future life. 

But these conditions of belief are utterly foreign to our own 

conceptions. I say nothing of the rejection of the virtuous heathen, 

because Dante himself could really find no room for it in his own 

system of conceptions. Italy in his mind as a belief accepted from 

^ Paradiso, xxiv. 86, 87, 



tradition but never really assimilated by faith. Apart from this, 
however, we find ourselves severed from Dante by his fundamental 
dogma that the hour of death ends all possibility of repentance or 
amendment. With him there is no repentance in Hell, no progress 
in Heaven ; and it is therefore only in Purgatory that we find any- 
thing at all fundamentally analogous to the modern conception of a 
progressive approximation to ideal perfection and oneness with God 
throughout the cycles of a future life. And even here the transition 
of Purgatory is but temporal, nor is there any fundamental or 
progressive change of heart in its circles, for unless the heart be 
changed before death it cannot change at all. 

In its literal acceptation, then, dealing with " the state of souls after 
death," the "Divine Comedy" has little to teach us, except indirectly. 

But allegorically it deals with " man," first as impenitently sinful, 
second, as penitent, last, as purified and holy. It shows us the 
requirements of Divine Justice with regard to these three states ; and 
whether we regard them as permanent or transitory, as severed bj'- 
sharp lines one from the other, or as melting imperceptibly into each 
other, as existing on earth or beyond the grave, in any case Dante 
teaches us what sentence justice must pronounce on impenitence, on 
penitence, and on sanctity. Nay, independently of any belief in 
future retribution at all, independently of any belief in what our 
actions will receive, Dante burns or flashes into our souls the indelible 
conviction of what they deserve. 

Now to Dante's mind, as to most others, the conceptions oijmtice 
and desert implied the conception of free will. And accordingly we 
find the reality of the choice exercised by man, and attended by such 
eternal issues, maintained with intense conviction throughout the 
poem. The free will is the supreme gift of God, and that by which 
the creature most closely partakes of the nature of the Creator. The 
free gift of God's love must be seized by an act of man's free will, in 
opposition to the temptations and difficulties that interpose themselves. 
There is justice as well as love in Heaven ; justice as well as mercy in 

112 DANTE 

Purgatory. The award of God rests upon the free choice of man, and 
registers his merit or demerit. It is true, and Dante fully recognises 
it, that one man has a harder task than another. The original 
constitution and the special circumstances of one man make the 
struggle far harder for him than for another ; but God never suffers 
the hostile influence of the stars to be so strong that the human will 
may not resist it. Diversity of character and constitution is the 
necessary condition of social life, and we can see why God did not 
make us all alike ; but when we seek to pierce yet deeper into the 
mystery of His government, and ask why this man is selected for this 
task, why another is burdened with that toil, why one finds the path 
of virtue plain for his feet to tread, while another finds it beset with 
obstacles before which his heart stands still — when we ask these 
questions we trench close upon one of those doubts which Dante 
brought back unsolved from Heaven. Not the seraph whose sight 
pierces deepest into the light of God could have told him this, so 
utterly is it veiled from all created sight.^ 

But amidst all these perplexities one supreme fact stands out to 
Dante's mind ; that, placed as we are on earth amidst the mysterious 
possibilities of good and evil, we are endowed with a genuine power 
of self-directed choice between them. The fulness of God's grace is 
freely offered to us all, the life eternal of obedience, of self-surrender, 
of love, tending ever to the fuller and yet fuller harmony of united 
will and purpose, of mutually blessed and blessing oflSces of affection, 
of growing joy in all the supporting and surrounding creation, of 
growing repose in the might and love of God. 

But if we shut our eyes against the light of God's countenance and 
turn our backs upon His love, if we rebel against the limitations of 
mutual self-sacrifice to one another and common obedience to God, 
then an alternative is also offered us in the fierce and weltering chaos 
of wild passions and disordered desires, recognising no law and evok- 

1 Compare Purgatorio, xvi. 67-84; ParadisOf iv. 73-114, v. 13 
aqq., viii. 115-129, xxi. 76-102, xxxii. 49-75. 


ing no harmonj', striking at the root of all common purpose and cut 
off from all helpful love. 

Our inmost hearts recognise the reality of this choice, and the 
justice and necessity of the award that gives us what we have chosen. 
That the hard, bitter, self-seeking, impure, mutinous, and treacherous 
heart should drive away love and peace and joy, is the natural, the 
necessary result of the inmost nature and constitution of things, and 
our hearts accept it. That self -discipline, gentleness, self-surrender, 
devotion, generosity, self-denying love, should gather round them 
light and sweetness, should infuse a fulness of joy into every personal 
and domestic relation, should give a glory to every material sur- 
rounding, and should gain an ever closer access to God, is no artificial 
arrangement which might with propriety be reversed, it is a part of 
the eternal and necessary constitution of the universe, and we feel 
that it ought so to be. 

There is no joy or blessedness without harmony, there is no 
harmony without the concurrence of indepemdent forces, there is no 
mch concurrence without self-discipline and self-surrender. 

But these natural consequences of our moral action are here on 
earth constantly interfered with and qualified, constantly baulked of 
their full and legitimate effect. Here we do not get our deserts. 
The actions of others affect us almost as much as our own, and 
artificially interpose themselves to screen us from the results of what 
we are and do ourselves. Hence we constantly fail to perceive the 
true nature of our choice. Its consequences fall on others ; we 
partially at least evade the Divine Justice, and forget or know not 
what we are doing, and what are the demands of justice with regard 
to us. 

Now Dante, in his three poems, with an incisive keenness of 
vision and a relentless firmness of touch, that stand alone, strips our 
life and our principles of action of all these distracting and confusing 
surroundings, isolates them from all qualifying and artificial pallia- 
tives, and shows us what our choice is, and where it leads to. 

114 DANTE 

In Hell we see the natural and righteous results of sin, recognise 
the direct consequences, the fitting surroundings of a sinful life, and 
understand what the sinful choice in its inmost nature is. As surely 
as our consciences accuse us of the sins that are here punished, so 
surely do we feel with a start of self -accusing horror, ' ' This is what I 
am trying to make the world. This is where I should be lodged if I 
received what I have given. This is what justice demands that I 
should have. This is what I deserve. It is what I Jiave, cJiosen." 

The tortures of Hell are not artificial inflictions, they are simply 
the reflection and application of the sinner's own ways and principles. 
He has made his choice, and he is given that which he has chosen. 
He has found at last a world in which his principles of action are not 
checked and qualified at every turn by those of others, in which he is 
not screened from any of the consequences of his deeds, in which his 
own life and action has consolidated, so to speak, about him, and has 
made his surroundings correspond with his heart. 

In the Hell, Dante shows us the nature and the deserts of 
impenitent sin ; and though we may well shrink from the ghastly 
conception of an eternal state of impenitence and hatred, yet surely 
there is nothing from which we ought to shrink in the conception oi 
impenitent sin as long as it lasts, whether in us or in others, 
concentrating its results upon itself, making its own place, and 
therefore receiving its deserts. 

When we turn from Hell to Purgatory, we turn from unrepentant 
and therefore constantly cherished, renewed, and' reiterated sin, to 
repentant sin, already banished from the heart. What does justice 
demand with regard to such sin ? Will it have it washed out ? Will 
it, in virtue of the sinner's penitence, intervene between him and the 
wretched results and consequences of his deeds ? Who that has ever 
sinned and repented will accept for a moment such a thought ? The 
repentant sinner does not wish to escape the consequences and results 
of his sin. His evil deeds or passions must bring and ought to bring 
a long trail of v/retched suffering for himself. This suffering is not 


corrective, it is expiatory. His heart is already corrected, it is already 
turned in shame and penitence to God ; but if he had no punishment, 
if his evil deed brought no suffering upon himself, he would feel that 
the Divine Justice had been outraged. He shrinks from the thought 
with a hurt sense of moral unfitness. He wishes to suffer; he would 
not escape into the peace of Heaven if he might. 

Never did Dante pierce more deeply into the truth of things, 
never did he bring home \h.& justice of punishment more closely to the 
heart, than when he told how the souls in Purgatory do not wish to 
rise to Heaven till they have worked out the consequences of their 
sins. The sin long since repented and renounced still haunts us with 
its shame and its remorse, still holds us from the fulness of the joy of 
God's love, still smites us with a keener pain the closer we press into 
the forgiving Father's presence ; and we would have it so. The 
deepest longing of our heart, which is now set right, is for full 
untroubled communion with God, yet it is just when nearest to Him 
that we feel the wretched penalty of our sin most keenly and that we 
least desire to escape it. 

But if the sinful disposition be gone, then the source of our 
suffering is dried up with it, and the sense of oneness with God, of 
harmony and trust, gradually overpowers the self-reproach, until 
from the state of penitence and suffering the soul rises to holiness 
and peace. 

It is in giving us glimpses of this final state that Dante wields his 
most transforming power over our lives. He shows us what God offers 
us, what it is that we have hitherto refused, what it is that we may 
still aspire to, that here or hereafter we may hope to reach. Sin- 
stained and sorrow-laden as we are, it is only on wings as strong as 
his that we can be raised even for a moment into that Divine blessed- 
ness in which sin has been so purged by suffering, so dried up by the 
sinner's love of God, so blotted out by God's love of him, that it has 
vanished as a dream, and the soul can say, ** Here wc repent not." 1 
^ Faradiso. ix. 103. 

ii6 DAmR 

How mighty the spirit that can raise us even for a moment from the 
desolate weariness of Hell, and the long suflfering of Purgatory, to 
the joy and peace of Heaven ! 

And here too there is justice. Here too the deserts of the soul are 
the gauge of its condition. For, as we have seen, in the very blessed- 
ness of Heaven, there are grades, and the soul which has once been 
stained with sin or tainted with selfish and worldly passion, can never 
be as though it had been always pure. Yet the torturing sense of 
unworthiness is gone, the unrest of a past that thwarts the present is 
no more ; the souls have cast off the burden of their sin, and ar« at 
perfect peace with God and with themselves. 

Sin, repentance, holiness, confronted with the Eternal Justice — 
what they are and what they deserve — such is the subject of Dante 
Alighieri's Comedy. 

Have nigh six centuries of progress out-grown the poem, or 
are Dante's still the mightiest and most living words in which man 
has ever painted in detail the true deserts of sin, of penitence, of 
sanctity ? The growing mind of man has burst the shell of Dante's 
m ediseval creed. • Is his portrayal of the true conditions of blessedness 
as antiquated as his philosophy, his religion as strange to modern 
thought as his theology ? Or has he still a power, wielded by no 
other poet, of taking us into the very presence of God and tuning 
our hearts to the harmonies of Heaven ? Those who have been with 
him on his mystic journey, and have heard and seen, can answer the 
questions with a declaration as clear and ringing as the poet's own 
confession of faith in the courts of Heaven. If those who have but 
caught some feeble echoes of his song can partly guess what the true 
answer is, then those echoes have not been waked in vain. 





Tnferno: I. 1—111 26 

I. 105 - 


I. 112—129 


I. 121—123 


II. 1—6 


II. 52—142 


III. 1-9 . 


III. 22—51 


IV. 23—45 


IV. 84 - 




V. 88, 91, 92 - 


VII. 117—126 


X. 22—93 


X. 52-72 


X. 109-111 


XIII. 65-78 


XIV. 43—66 


XV. 55sqq. 


XVI. 64-85 

. 52 

XVIII. 82—96 


XVIII. 103- ISG 




XX. 27 sq. - 


XXIII. 58sqq. 


XXIV. 112— XXV. 9 






XXX. 64-67 

• » • 





Inferno {continued) 

XXXIV. 55—67 
XXXIV. 136—139 






















71 sq. 








112 sq. 


73 8q.,133~ 












76 sq. 




73 sq. 










31 - 







PuRGATORio {cmtxnvitd) 


XXVI. 13—15,81 - 


XXVII. 49—51 


XXIX. 76 sq. 


XXIX. 103—114 


XXX. Sqq. 




XXX. 22-XXXI, 90 


XXX. 79—81 


XXXI. 64-67 

- 93 

Paradiso: I. 1—12 


I. 100—102 


II. 1—15 


III. 64—90 

. 96 

IV. 28—48 

. 93 

IV. 73-114 

. 112 

V. 13sqq. 

. 112 

VI. 112-126 

• 97 

VIII. 115-129 

. 112 

IX. 103 ■ 

- 115 

X. 139— XL, 12 - 

. 95 

XIV. 85-XIX., 148 

- 101 

XVIT. 55—63 


XVII. 70—93 


XVII. 103—142 


XVIII. 124—136 

- 17 


- 103 

XXI. 76—102 

- 112 

XXII. 1 sqq. 


XXIII. 1-15 


XXIV. 86 sq. - 

. 110 

XXV. 5 


XXV. 52-64 


XXVII. 22—34 

■ 97 



Pabadzso {continutd) \ 


41 sq. . 


40—42 . 




62—93 - 


49-75 . 


68-63 - 



Vita Nuova : I., II. 


IV.— XXX. 













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